The Art of Attention: A Poet's Eye, by Donald Revell.
Graywolf Press. $12.00.
A poetry criticism based on the idea of seeing might seem strange given the art’s celebrated hospitableness to the blind, but The Art of Attention is such criticism, insisting on sensuous immediacy and the primacy of the visual. Revell promotes what he calls the Aenean, or pious, artist, and deprecates the Odyssean or Orphean one, whose art is clever, wields a secular power, and makes enemies. The types may be distinguished by their attitude to attention, which, if not subordinated to intention, allows a writer to work in a state of proper deference to the physical world. Things as they appear, in this poetry of “pious materialism,” are things as they are, and what you see is what you get. It would be an uncontroversial starting point to say that attention is the sine qua non of a poem, analogous to a sharpened tool or a tuned instrument. For Revell that preparation is an end in itself, and the art of poetry is not furthered by the cultivation of techniques for synthesizing distinct experiences or representing them after the fact. Time occurring sequentially, any form of composition that doubles back on itself or otherwise tries to move out of this current, to turn percept into concept, is in betrayal of an experiential truth.
The position is extreme, and Revell’s motivations for it become clearer as the book goes on — in later chapters he writes about his alienation from his early work, which now seems to him unspontaneous and fear-driven. He sees his development as a process of being weaned from “the illegitimate sovereignty of self,” a weaning made possible by personal crises, “the exhaustion of my formalist sensibilities,” and the restorative effects of translating Apollinaire and Rimbaud. In trying to turn this narrative of artistic arrival into a coherent criticism, though, difficulties arise almost immediately, and Revell proceeds by trying to bluff his way through them. What distinguishes a poet from a camcorder? Imagination simultaneous with perception, Revell says — in other words, hallucination. What determines the shape of a poem? “Simple duration.” Why is a record of perceptions constitutive of poetry? “Because it is.” What distinctive qualities may a poem possess? “Not original in itself, it becomes a source of originality simply by its being real.” Does writing from the unmediated senses present a limitation? No, for in doing so “the poet accepts a limited role in poetry comparable to that of God.”
The problem, broadly, is that Revell’s distaste for argumentation in poetry carries over into his criticism, which consequently acquires a blithe, absolutist quality. Lacking the means to support his statements, he is reduced to making the opposing position sound unpleasant: “arguments are incoherent, dependent, like Republicans, on discord”; “argument, that dark Satanic mill.” His virtual substitution of “is” for “can be” has a way of taking conceivably defensible propositions and turning them into meaningless or counterfactual edicts which leave him wildly exposed: “the art of poetry is the abolition of doubt”; “the world is alive”; “composition is taxidermy”; “mediation is aggression”; “wit is always impious”; “eyesight is prophetic instantly”; “all real things are wild”; “where there is no telling the difference, there is no difference”; “a poem is not a quarrel”; “poetry is happiness.” Revell occasionally realizes that he is out on a limb, but it is in the nature of his position to insist that every device that does not recognize the sovereignty of the seen is prideful and inherently predicated on aggression. The book thus disposes of narrative, allegory, devotion, meditation, drama, philosophy, compositional patterning, and any effect deriving from, say, the modulation of rhetoric or tone.
If thought is equated with aggression, the perverse corollary is that gentleness requires thoughtlessness. I do not believe that this is what Revell intends, and so I sense, behind his claims for the truth-value of attention, despair that thinking will yield anything worth saying. Lacking terms in which experience may be understood, there is nothing left to do but transcribe — and surely if one transcribes accurately there can be no question of error or disappointment:
I am speaking of, I am looking for, an authority uninsistent and incandescent, an authority unlikely to be deserted by its circus animals because it never once imagines itself nor wishes to be confined to little rings inside a tent or ever to hold the bullwhip of a ringmaster in his fancy dress.
Revell has never really been a Yeatsian ringmaster, but as he points out he hasn’t always practiced what he preaches, either. His poems (those from the early nineties particularly) contain elements of pious attention, and also movements of induction and self-consciousness — they generalize, expound, and speculate; they think. As for life after the circus, Revell has left behind his early frustrations at the expense of future possibilities. “Who would wish,” he asks, “to be known as ‘crafty’?” Better that, I would say, than to be known as artless.
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Interview with a Ghost, by Tom Sleigh.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.
The three sections of Interview with a Ghost form an arc which passes from the body to the self to considerations of specific poets who have, in the terms of the preceding discussions, rethought the notion of “I” in innovative ways. The book is bracketed by selections from — you guessed it — an interview with a ghost, who makes world-weary responses to an unmincing questioner. Sleigh’s dominant theme is subjectivity, and his splitting himself in two and sending one half to the other side is meant to get us thinking about what authority the “I” can claim and how much fluidity we can tolerate in this character before it loses integrity and plausibility.
Sleigh’s parents ran a drive-in theater in Texas for a time, and in what is surely the strangest poet-anecdote I have ever heard, Sleigh remembers falling asleep in the car night after night as a very young child to the voices of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (once you know this, reading his poetry will never be the same). He later became aware of his mother’s extravagant style of speech and his father’s reticence, then as an adolescent moved beyond them into San Diego’s “arcane doper / surfer vocabulary.” Sleigh has lived for decades with a blood disease, and writes in some detail about the peculiar states of mind this engenders — “quiet monomania,” elaborate fantasies of being Socrates and ordered to drink the hemlock. The disease constantly poses the question, “How can you lead your life if life means that you must be ill?” Some sense of constant contingency and inner multiplicity fuels his deepest thinking about the art, and the juiciest essay in the book is one called “Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry.” Sleigh sees the self in American poetry, even going back to the seventeenth century, as propped up by “some sponsoring transcendental source” like the Over-soul or a theory of the subconscious, whose simplifying paradigm the “I” tacitly consents to. “In my scenario,” he says,
the poet is deeply attuned to the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in having both devils and angels whispering in his ear: the poet must express, simultaneously, the many ways that such opposing and unruly recognitions might function in a poem.
Sleigh’s key thought experiment, and the place where I ultimately lose him, pictures a poet out on an errand and turning trivia over in his mind. Some words begin to coalesce, so he sits down at a bus stop to write:
“The window is stuck. First tragedy of the day.” And suddenly P is no longer P . . . he is stepping out of his skin and plunging into the currents of language. As P scribbles though, he begins to be aware of other P’s that want to say things: the P that doubts that windows are tragedies, the P that wants to salvage that sense of tragedy by turning it into a joke, the P that begins to feel despair that any of these words will ever make it into a finished poem, let alone get published in a book of poems. And then P has a savage turn against the “I” that is writing the poem and puts down the notebook in disgust, suddenly torn between his sense of real tragedies, what he knows is the political awareness of the poem, and his desire to insist on the window’s stuckness as indeed feeling like a tragedy, a metaphysical condition he can’t escape from. And so the poet is stretched between politics and transcendence, and feels a growing hostility toward any settled position, and more and more desperate to be affected by, and responsive to, all positions at once.
For Sleigh, Lowell is the poet who best exemplifies such responsiveness — his shifting conception of the self, both within poems and over the course of his career, reflects enough inner chaos to do the most justice to P’s thought process. P eventually calms down, but the ideal of perfect sensitivity remains; like any ideal, it can be approximated, but in the end is the opposite of a tragedy: it is a metaphysical condition no poem can enter. P is painted into a corner where any poem he writes, lies. The character of the thought, the determined escalation of responsibility, appears in a lot of recent criticism (Revell and Bringhurst show it too, in different ways) and increasingly seems to be a general feature of intellectual life. Speaking specifically of ethics, Terry Eagleton calls this escalation “infinitist”: “The reductio ad absurdum of this case is Jacques Derrida’s flamboyant, utterly straight-faced claim that to feed his own cat is to neglect all the other cats in the world, and thus to incur perpetual guilt.” P’s version would be that in writing about one’s cat, one is slighting all potential poems about other cats. I very much treasure the elasticity Sleigh advocates — Vijay Seshadri, among current poets, possesses it in spades — but I don’t find that it renders obsolete occasions of formal unity, broadly conceived. There remain, after all, occasions when the mind is not abjectly divided against itself or is able one way or another to pull itself together, and pushing the limits of subjectivity may be simply beside the point at that moment, as it may not be later. I understand the desire (P is quite recognizable), but not the necessity, for a rigorously conceived, all-inclusive polyvocalism — that is, I am willing to feed my cat.
The universe of Interview with a Ghost is sort of pre-Copernican: the self, and Sleigh’s hyperdeveloped picture of it, sit at the center; on the horizon there seethe technological developments and “consumerism’s fascistic undercurrents”; and beyond lies “the larger story of the planet.” The near field, though, is an undifferentiated cloud, which limits Sleigh’s ability to do justice to social and historical forces that might connect the “I” to something else. Much of his poetics is adaptable, with slight modifications, to thinking about the incorporation of communal voices as well as internal ones. I suspect that in the tumult of the “we,” questions of the “I” would become more interesting, more complicated, and less pressing.
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The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks, by Robert Bringhurst.
Gaspereau Press. $28.95.
The somewhat desultory lectures in The Tree of Meaning draw on art, language, natural history, and literature, especially native North American literature. The lectures are not otherwise easy to describe. In their belief that our distinctions between these fields of study are not at some level specious, they have a character that is philosophical and religious and yet not quite either. Bringhurst is a thinker for whom an out-there, across-the-grain intellectual life has not gotten in the way of acquiring canonical expertise in various areas of knowledge, including linguistics, typography, and Renaissance painting. He knows, at a literary and etymological level, a passel of ancient and modern languages, including several indigenous North American ones (though for Bringhurst “indigenous North American” would be a pleonasm: his practice is to use an explicit modifier when talking about imported things like “colonial literature”). He is part MIT and part California ashram; when reading him one has the unusual sense that the writer, even without his writing, would be an interesting guy. It is not long before you realize that his field of reference is immense, possibly broader (and certainly deeper) than Pound’s. This field requires some acclimatization, not only because of its enormity but because any anthropocentric term, including “poetry,” is up for redefinition. Amid such shifting terms, he holds together disparate ideas and traditions with a hyper-holistic concept of ecology: tribes are habitats for stories; stories make and are made of language, as a tree makes and is made of wood. Landscapes are habitats, and so whatever lives there constitutes a story, implying a language; the studies of biology, linguistics, and literature converge in their anatomizing kinds of “creature” (organism, sentence, story) in kinds of “surroundings” (environment, language, myth). Orality is “the natural or wild state of literature,” so written works necessarily entail domestication, and societies that adopt writing undergo a “ritual mutilation of the intellect.”
Bringhurst’s claims for oral culture bear on the subject he is most interested in, the status of native North American literatures. A sizable body of work emerged from the “great age of text transcription” (about 1890–1939), and some of the book’s most interesting passages are about fruitful encounters between storytellers and conscientious scribes: Lizette K’atchodi and Émile Petitot on the Mackenzie River in 1870, Q’eltí and Franz Boas in Washington in the 1890s, François Mandeville and Li Fang-Kuei in Alberta in 1928, and closest to Bringhurst’s heart, the Haida storytellers Skaay and Ghandl and linguist John R. Swanton in British Columbia in 1900. In the later twentieth century many of the collected texts went inexplicably into limbo; Bringhurst himself rediscovered certain of Swanton’s papers that were lost for decades in the Smithsonian. He finds the sum of scholarly and artistic effort expended on behalf of these texts eminently feeble. It is difficult, though, to get out of him anything like a sketch of these often long and complicated works, even from other books of his ostensibly dedicated to the task. He has a strong aversion to paraphrase, motivated in part by the checkered history of commentary on oral literatures, and his reticence extends even to discussing matters of structure, theme, and form. It is by getting chastised for expecting alexandrines or iambic pentameter, for example, that you learn the “poems” he discusses are not verse of any kind: they appear to be something like the Hebrew scriptures, with certain “syntactic rhymes and recurrent shapes of incident and event” described, sort of, by what he calls noetic prosody. The result of this purism is that the admirable qualities of the Haida and other myths cannot be established with any specificity. Bringhurst’s claims for them are not substantiated, as if the source of their excellence were something he wanted to keep secret. Since he is one of at most a few people in a position to perform comparative literature of this scope, his is an especially frustrating eulogy.
The Tree of Meaning functions as a document of formalized irritation, even anguish, and Bringhurst occasionally loses sight of his reader (no one who was unaware that the border between the US and Canada was “non-aboriginal” could possibly be reading the book). If his enormous intellectual investment in Haida and other Native American literatures has not been repaid yet, I suspect wider interest in them is ultimately a matter of allowing them some of the play allowed the Greek myths, whose study does not preclude, and is not sullied by, casual use: one does not blink to see them in everything from video games to startup names to school plays. The trend in the US, at least, is away from any such hybridization with these literatures and towards a chastened, insular, hands-off policy. There are reasons for this, but it is not a development that William Carlos Williams or Charles Olson — two other poets interested in forming a thought-out response to the fact of standing on the Americas — would have preferred. Bringhurst is better equipped to challenge it, and I hope that with emphasis on some practical component of his thinking he continues to do so.
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The Filled Pen: Selected Non-Fiction, by P.K.Page.
University of Toronto Press. $21.95.
Composed between 1969 and very recently, the pieces in The Filled Pen cover art, film, literature, and the author herself; notably, there are garlands for some prominent figures in Canadian literature, including the poets A.M. Klein and George Johnston and the novelists Ethel Wilson and L.M. Montgomery. There are also a few oblique memoirs in which, despite Page’s best efforts, “the self, like a child who has been put to bed before the party, cannot resist creeping downstairs.” The resulting aggregate portrait depicts the writer’s inner processes in more detail than it does the writer herself, and editor Zailig Pollock aptly calls her book an “autobiography of the imagination.” This narrative does not emerge from a template of misunderstood genius or success against long odds — there is a trustworthy diffidence and a winning, highly oxygenated wit in a voice that can look on its early development and say (as Page puts it), “Clearly, I was retarded.”
Page’s criticism is generally of an informal type, attentive to the ground of its own responses and not inclined to exert itself theoretically or historically. As this type of criticism has a way of incidentally outlining one’s aesthetics, and is in principle not particularly taxing, I wish poets wrote more of it. Her prose, not so easily imitable, is of a fleet and nonetheless literary sort not seen much this side of England, which is where Page was born. The family moved to Calgary and she had an outdoorsy childhood, the prairie leaving a deep impression on her (“My Hindu Kush,” she has called it). A postgraduate year back in England raised her artistic expectations, and she passed WWII in Montreal, where she had sustained literary company and began to publish poems (which first appeared in these pages in 1942). There eventually followed extended stays in Australia, Brazil, and Mexico. In Brazil, she found herself for the first time unable to communicate and so without those données of phrase that sometimes seed a poem; drawing or painting, in contrast, could grow out of the pleasures of their attendant motions, and thus were better suited to answering the sensuousness confronting her: “a marmoset in a rage,” “enormous quantities of gold leaf,” “cerise dragon flies.” Without a verbal answer for this extravagance (at the time), she went back to the drawing board, so to speak, and set to work again with intensified self-consciousness on the matter of how style and even medium can accrete into a mask. The long-term residue of these developments is a contact with her mind at the level of its first impressions, antecedent to the clutter of ideas and interpretations, which she consequently can only treat with limited seriousness. When she launches into some left brain / right brain talk, for example, it is immediately evident that she is lending more credence to an abstraction than she is really interested in sustaining.
Page’s eye for detail and the connection to Brazil have invited comparisons with Elizabeth Bishop, only five years her senior. I place Page’s kind of precision, sometimes fanatical, closer to Marianne Moore’s. Describing a drawing by Pat Martin Bates, Page writes,
This rose is a rose and its mirror image — eight petalled. Above and below the two heads glow, larger, translucent. Together, they form a hexoctahedron — that is, if you were to cut out the two “roses” and fold them in triangular facets you would make a 48 faceted solid of eight irregular “planes” composed of six facets.
(If this really means something, it is a triumph.) She says, too, that “without magic the world is not to be borne,” and is a writer whose affinity with the folkloric and surreal does not interfere with or displace reason. Certain effects are available only to artists of this kind; they are alive to the wit that results when one domain intrudes on another. She tells the old story of the train conductor asked if turtles, like dogs, require tickets: “‘Oh, no, Mam,’ he replied. ‘Dogs is dogs and cats is dogs and rabbits is dogs. A squirrel in a cage is parrots. But turtles is insects and we don’t charge for those.’” The rational operating on obscure or arbitrary premises — this is the sensibility variously of Victorian humor, Southern fiction, and, in still another way, of Page.
Canadian poetry came into its own in the thirties, so Page’s remembrances of the emerging scene, roughly analogous to those of an American born around 1900, are literary history. But the principal value of The Filled Pen is in the subtle way it betrays itself as the product of a poet. After her second book of poems came out an acquaintance of hers read it and, as Page tells it,
looked at me in astonishment and said, “I shall never again know what you are thinking.” She must have been more of a fiction writer than I, because it had never occurred to me that I knew her thoughts.
This prudence about the known and the unknown, a familiar enough feature of poetry, yields distinctive pleasures in Page’s prose.