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Baroqueness: Gertrude Stein, C.K. Williams, John Donne, Peter Paul Rubens, John Milton, Frank O’Hara
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
–Frank O’Hara, from “Why I am Not a Painter.”
O’Hara and Goldberg talk about composition. What to put where in the picture and how much. Poems have compositions too, distinct or semi-distinct from their subjects. What to put in the beginning so as to make it to the end. How to change the middle because you changed a line break further along. For example, maybe pressure builds builds builds then releases quick. Milton did this all the time:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse…
–opening lines of Paradise Lost.
Of A, and the B of C, whose D brought E into F, and G, with H of I, till J does K, and L………SING!
It’s a wave gathering and gathering and gathering till it’s impossibly heavy, then breaking. It’s a verbal orgasm.
Paradise Lost gets called a Baroque poem. Wikipedia points out that “Baroque” is a term that is usually used pejoratively anymore, to indicate something excessively ornamented or complex. I love a lot of Baroque art and writing, so it’s more interesting to me to think about it as stylistics and composition that may be exaggerated but also clear and dramatic, tense and exuberant and grand.
Baroque painting often builds and builds and builds but the wave doesn’t break. Paintings are still, a frozen moment in time. Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Fall of Phaeton” shows the young charioteer who thought he could control the horses of the sun’s chariot, and can’t, and dies when the chariot overturns in the sky and dumps him out. This painting shows the moment at the top of the build towards the heavens—the moment when Phaeton has begun to fall.
Lots of disproportion and overtoppling force, but no release. Poems, by contrast, are chronological. In poems, you can stop at the climax if you want—or you can show the climax and then the release. Sometimes release is not really release of pressure, but simply counter-motion. Sometimes disproportion doesn’t mean anything topples. John Donne makes you think he’s going for the topple in his “Holy Sonnet 14”:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
But he ends not so much with release as with seriously witty, wittily serious paradox:
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
In other words, a punchline, however heartfelt, however profound, may not be a release. But that poem is what I thought of when I first read C.K. Williams’ gorgeous “Wait,” which addresses not God, but time:
Chop, hack, slash; chop, hack, slash; cleaver, boning knife, ax—
not even the clumsiest clod of a butcher could do this so crudely,
time, as do you, dismember me, render me, leave me slop in a pail,
one part of my body a hundred years old, one not even there anymore,
another still riven with idiot vigor, voracious as the youth I was
for whom everything always was going too slowly, too slowly.
Each of the four six-line stanzas in “Wait” is itself like a separate engorged wave in sea of torment. The final stanza doesn’t actually resolve or release, but it does subside, as if the tide going out reduces the frightening force of the wave:
Wait, though, wait: I should tell you too how happy I am,
how I love it so much, all of it, chopping and slashing and all.
Please know I love especially you, how every morning you turn over
the languorous earth, for how would she know otherwise to do dawn,
to do dusk, when all she hears from her speech-creatures is “Wait!”?
We whose anguished wish is that our last word not be “Wait.”
Compositionally-speaking Williams often seems Baroque-ish to me, in a good way—and in a stylistic, compositional sense, rather than a political sense of artists working for the glorification of a centralized power. (It’s hard to imagine C.K. Williams writing in the service of a centralized power.) In older Williams poems, the Baroque-ish-ness has to do with the way the muscles and lungs have to work through the reading of the poem, the way the sentences build to carry more and more weight. In “Good Mother: Out,” Williams’ speaker is watching a child: “’I want,’ he says again, through his tears, in this unfamiliar voice, again, ‘I want, I want,’/not even knowing why he says it now, says it yet again, only knowing that he has to say it…” The sentence goes on through the whole poem (seven long lines), and the description takes up five of them. One sentence building in a series of clauses as the mother tells the child calmly he can’t have whatever it is he wants, then hisses angrily at him, then spanks him, then spanks him again and again. But the kid (still in the same sentence) can’t stop his repetition of “I want,” though “he really doesn’t care now, doesn’t even want what might be wanted.” Finally in line 6 of this 7 line poem, and after a colon rather than a full-stop period, Williams breaks in, finding in the scene questions he wants to ask—but not answer: “why keep saying it?…why must he keep on with it?” And ends: “Does he love her less? Is their relationship ever henceforth to be this? Desire, denial, despair?”
The meditative Baroque?
You can find a similar effect of accumulation and release in Williams’ poem “Shame,” though the sudden opening of the pressure valve comes even later, in the last half line.
Prose does it too, this pressure and release. It’s not always a matter of muscle. In Wars I Have Seen, Gertrude Stein is chatty, congenial, anecdotal—the more startling because her subject matter is war. Stein makes each sentence carry a series of unpunctuated clauses which sometimes loop back and are usually paratactic. The sentences, and the whole passage, seem simultaneously to hover, suspended, and move inexorably forward:
I went out in the moonlight, and it was so lovely and not cold although January and in the mountains and I took a walk and I met on the road a young gendarme who the French army…And I said how goes it and he said I have just been appointed to the personal guard of the Maréchal. Maréchal Petain. Why that I said is a great promotion. Yes he said I do not know why, well I said you are rather better educated than your comrades, no he said just primary school, like they all have. And now he said I am going to Vichy and they are having my uniform made and I accompany him wherever he goes on my motorcycle. You know how to ride one I said. Oh yes he said I rode one in the war I was in the cavalry. Oh said I you were not then always in the Alpine troops, no he said after I escaped, I was a prisoner, I thought I would like a change. And said he now I am the personal guard of the Maréchal and I am permanently attached to the government and if he dies whoever succeeds him, whether it is a dictator or something different I will be the personal guard of the government. He was only twenty-two and I wished him good luck and said perhaps we would meet in Paris and said he if the government goes there I will but I hope it will be free and I said I have good hope and he said I always have had and he said he would say goodbye to me before he left and I said surely, and I went on walking with my white dogs in the moonlight.
There at least two moments of release in that passage. The tension grows by syntax and grammar, a sonic, rhythmic matter almost irrelevant to content. But it also grows in terms of subject matter. A congenial anecdote of a meeting between an ex-pat and a local acquires shadows when we find out the young Frenchman has been appointed to the personal guard of the Maréchal Petain. Stein says she hopes she’ll meet the young man in Paris, and he says “if the government goes there I will but I hope it will be free,” a complicated and surprising moment that’s a kind of relief if we know Petain is a war hero turned collaborator who becomes head of Vichy France. So that in the course of what seems like a celebration of the young man’s promotion, he says something essentially against his boss. It’s a moment of relief for the reader, that is: now I can sympathize with the young man.
Then there’s the last sentence, where Stein says “And I went on walking with my white dogs in the moonlight.” A rhythmic full-stop, and a lovely, plain-spoken and ambiguous image which feels vaguely ominous: something about Stein’s helplessness, her acquiescence, too, to life in Vichy France. So we have a buildup of flat/marvelous/strange sentences which operate mostly as a sketch on the way somewhere else: a whole lot of middle. But they culminate in a release into resonant objective correlative image—white dogs, moonlight, glow, erasure—which is no relief at all.