29 April 2007

Suzanne K. Langer

[from Suzanne K. Langer's Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, 1953]

what art expresses is not actual feeling, but ideas of feeling; as language does not express actual things and events but ideas of them. Art is expressive through and through — every line, every sound, every gesture; and therefore it is a hundred per cent symbolic. It is not sensuously pleasing and also symbolic; the sensuous quality is in the service of its vital import. A work of art is far more symbolic than a word, which can be learned and even employed without any knowledge of its meaning; for a purely and wholly articulated symbol presents its import directly to any beholder who is sensitive at all to articulated forms in the given medium.

An articulate form, however, must be clearly given and understood before it can convey any import, especially when there is no conventional reference whereby the import is assigned to it as its unequivocal meaning, but the congruence of the symbolic form and the form of some vital experience must be directly perceived by the force of Gestalt alone. Hence the paramount importance of abstracting the form, banning all irrelevancies that might obscure its logic, and especially divesting it of all its usual meanings so it may be open to new ones. The first thing is to estrange it from actuality, to give it "otherness," "self-sufficiency"; this is done by creating a realm of illusion, in which it functions as Schein, mere semblance, free from worldly offices. The second thing is to make it plastic, so it may be manipulated in the interests of expression instead of practical signification. This is achieved by the same means — uncoupling it from practical life, abstracting it as a free conceptual figment. Only such forms can be plastic, subject to deliberate torsion, modification, and composition for the sake of expressiveness. And finally, it must become "transparent" — which it does when insight into the reality to be expressed, the Gestalt of living experience, guides its author in creating it.

28 April 2007

birding today in McClellanville, SC

American coot
American white pelican
bald eagle
black-and-white warbler
black-necked stilt
black skimmer
black vulture
blue-winged teal
boat-tailed grackle
Caspian tern
common moorhen
Forster's tern
great blue heron
great egret
greater yellowlegs
indigo bunting
laughing gull
least sandpiper
least tern
lesser yellowlegs
marsh wren
Mississippi kite
mottled duck
Northern cardinal
Northern shoveler
orchard oriole
prairie warbler
purple grosbeak
purple martin
red-breasted merganser
red-winged blackbird
ruby-throated hummingbird
semipalmated plover
semipalmated sandpiper
short-billed dowitcher
spotted sandpiper
summer tanager
tree swallow
tricolored heron
turkey vulture
white-rumped sandpiper
wood stork

heard but did not see:

common yellowthroat
Eastern wood-pewee
least bittern
red-headed woodpecker

27 April 2007

Eliot on Baudelaire

[from T. S. Eliot's essay on Baudelaire, 1930]

Baudelaire's morbidity of temperament cannot, of course, be ignored . . . To the eye of the world, and quite properly for all questions of private life, Baudelaire was thoroughly perverse and insufferable: a man with a talent for ingratitude and unsociability, intolerably irritable, and with a mulish determination to make the worst of everything; if he had money, to squander it; if he had friends, to alienate them; if he had any good fortune, to disdain it. He had the pride of the man who feels in himself great weakness and great strength. Having great genius, he had neither the patience nor the inclination, had he had the power to overcome his weakness; on the contrary, he exploited it for theoretical purposes. The morality of such a course may be a matter for endless dispute; for Baudelaire, it was the way to liberate his mind and give us the legacy and lesson that he has left.

He was one of those who have great strength, but strength merely to suffer. He could not escape suffering and could not transcend it, so he attracted pain to himself. But what he could do, with that immense passive strength and sensibilities which no pain could impair, was to study his suffering. And in this limitation he is wholly unlike Dante, not even like any character in Dante's Hell. But, on the other hand, such suffering as Baudelaire's implies the possibility of a positive state of beatitude. Indeed, in his way of suffering is already a kind of presence of the supernatural and of the superhuman. He rejects always the purely natural and the purely human; in other words, he is neither 'naturalist' or 'humanist'. Either because he cannot adjust himself to the actual world he has to reject it in favour of Heaven and Hell, or because he has the perception of Heaven and Hell he rejects the present world: both ways of putting it are tenable. There is in his statements a good deal of romantic detritus; ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher, he says of the Poet and the Albatross, but not convincingly; but there is also truth about himself and about the world. His ennui may of course be explained, as everything can be explained in psychological or pathological terms; but it is also, from the opposite point of view, a true form of acedia, arising from the unsuccessful struggle towards the spiritual life. . . .

It is not merely in the use of imagery of common life, not merely in the use of imagery of the sordid life of a great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity — presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something much more than itself — that Baudelaire has created a mode of release and expression for other men.

. . . Baudelaire perceived that what really matters in Sin and Redemption . . . and the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation — of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living.

Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot

25 April 2007

Walt Whitman

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I marked where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament out of itself
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

24 April 2007

as close as Robert Browning gets to Walt Whitman

[Robert Browning, 1855]

Two in the Campagna

I wonder do you feel today
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?

For me, I touched a thought, I know,
Has tantalized me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.

Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellowing fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,

Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles — blind and green they grope
Among the honey-meal: and last,
Everywhere on the grassy slope
I traced it. Hold it fast!

The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air —
Rome’s ghost since her decease.

Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!

How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?

I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more.
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O’ the wound, since wound must be?

I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs — your part my part
In life, for good and ill.

No, I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away, I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth — I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak —
Then the good minute goes.

Already how am I so far
Out of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow,
Fixed by no friendly star?

Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern —
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

Louise Bogan

[from Louise Bogan's The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968]

The Dream

O God, in the dream the terrible horse began
To paw at the air, and make for me with his blows.
Fear kept for thirty-five years poured through his mane,
And retribution equally old, or nearly, breathed through his nose.

Coward complete, I lay and wept on the ground
When some strong creature appeared, and leapt for the rein.
Another woman, as I lay half in a swound,
Leapt in the air, and clutched at the leather and chain.

Give him, she said, something of yours as a charm.
Throw him, she said, some poor thing you alone claim.
No, no, I cried, he hates me; he's out for harm,
And whether I yield of not, it is all the same.

But, like a lion in a legend, when I flung the glove
Pulled from my sweating, my cold right hand,
The terrible beast, that no one may understand,
Came to my side, and put down his head in love.

The Blue Estuaries: Poems: 1923-1968

spleen and ideal

"Browning is a man with a moderate gift passionately desiring movement and fullness, and obtaining but a confused multitudinousness"
      — Matthew Arnold

[the teaching of poetry can] "expose counterfeit work, thus gradually leading the student to the valid"
      — Ezra Pound

"the setting and comforts are those of a man with a private income, at home and petulant and spoiled, like the older Auden"
      — Michael Schmidt on Browning's poem "By the Fireside"

[Whitman's] "democratic syntax . . . the non-subordination of clauses"
      — Mark Strand

18 April 2007

Morri Creech

[from Morri Creech's Field Knowledge, 2006; reprinted by kind permission of The Waywiser Press, London & Baltimore]

The Crux of Martyrdom

Simone Weil at the sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, England, 1943

It's not that she has given up desire
exactly; more like, it seems, the will to choose —
to swallow bread, potatoes, the ripe pear
a nurse has brought her, which she must refuse
for Christ's sake. Or for her people starving in France.
At first she stayed up late, with prayer and cigarettes,
wrote long lies full of tenderness to her parents

     I have never read the story of the barren fig tree
     without trembling. I think it is about me

telling of friends in London, the spring's rich blossoms;
yet no word about her health, her body's slow
failure. Day after day the doctors come
complaining of her stubbornness. They know
her. And she, their hopes. Still, she must not choose
to eat, must refuse everything save the logic
of refusal, which she cannot help but choose.

     the most beautiful life possible has always seemed
     to me one in which everything is determined

So her reason revolves along its course
toward that sure consummation for which she waits.
She waits and waits. Too tired now to rehearse
the poem where Love bade His guest to sit and eat,
she dreams of that attic room He led her to,
where bread was sweet, the wine like sun and soil,
and she could see, beyond the attic window,

     He entered my room and spoke: I understood
     that He had been mistaken in coming for me

a city's wooden scaffoldings, those boats
unladen by a river, and the sun
raging above the trees . . .
                                     The doctor's coats
Whisper by outside her door. She's alone.
No voice comes down to her; no hallowed word.
Even the headaches have stopped, which once held
her writhing in their vise. And yet she's stirred.

     when my headaches were raging, I sometimes
     had an intense desire to strike someone

Though it's late, and she's much too tired to write,
she can't quite still the current of ideas
or master her relentless appetite
for thought — philosophy, the worst disease
of a religious mind, perhaps her one
error. For hours she wrestles those abstruse
geometries, turning her whole attention

     I will consider men's actions and appetites
     as though they were lines, surfaces, and volumes

to the crux of martyrdom. French soldiers
and citizens in thousands have since gone,
quietly or not, to their deaths; how can her
own starvation measure against the ones
who could not choose to choose? Even her days
of factory work — yes, she's felt the strain
of labor, sweating near the furnaces

     perhaps He must use even worthless objects
     for His purposes: I must tell myself these things

that scorched her hands and fingers long before
Christ, like a migraine, seized her steady mind;
yet always she could have left. And now the war
has jilted her, denying her the blind
hand of necessity. She's made her choice.
The nurse bends down to take her pulse, offering
a sip of tea; but still she must refuse.

     if I only had to stretch out my hand to grasp
     salvation, I would not put my hand out

And though she's grown too weak to hold a cup
or spoon, she closes her eyes and sees that room,
that attic room, where she was told to sup,
and the long table shimmers, awaiting Him
who will offer her bread, although she must refuse
until He seat her there among the least
and feed them, too, who have no power to choose —

     Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back

till the Lord whose bread is hunger sets the feast.

15 April 2007

Tristan Corbiere

To Mount Aetna

Sicelides Musae, paulo majora canamus
                                            — Virgil

Aetna — I've been up Vesuvius . . .
Vesuvius has shrunk, it seems:
There was more heat in me than streams
From that wounded crater in hot pus . . .

— They say you're like a woman. — What?
— Your age, I suppose — ? or maybe that cooked
Pebble, your heart? . . . Well, it's a thought . . .
Laugh? I thought I'd come apart?

— That dirty grin of yours, that cough
Thick as the phlegm of a senile lust;
Your old breast cancer draining off
Lava from under its scabby crust.

Comrade, let's go to bed together,
My hide against your sick hide; yes,
I swear by Venus you're my brother,
Vulcan! . . .
                  A little more . . . or less . . .

[translated by Dudley Fitts]

14 April 2007

Paul Muldoon

[from Paul Muldoon's Moy Sand and Gravel, 2002]

The Otter

That was the year S—— told him how on the Queen's desk
there lay a great six-by-four-foot blotter
of such a blackness, she would aver,
a blackness so dense
and a grain so close, so compact,
no one could hope to hold
a mirror up to it
and thereby . . . and thereby hit
on any evidence of clandestine contracts or covenants, or old
enemies having entered a secret pact
to which she might be a party or affix her hand, any evidence
of the treachery he now saw written all over her,
rising as she did to meet him like the otter
that had risen once to meet him from Lough Eske.


The day our son is due is the very day
the redknots are meant to touch down
on their long haul
from Chile to the Arctic Circle,
where they'll nest on the tundra
within a few feet
of where they were hatched.
Forty or fifth thousand of them
are meant to drop in along Delaware Bay.

They time their arrival on these shores
to coincide with the horseshoe crabs
laying their eggs in the sand.
Smallish birds to begin with,
the redknots have now lost half their weight.
Eating the eggs of the horseshoe crabs
is what gives them the strength to go on,
forty or fifty thousand of them getting up all at once
as if for a rock concert encore.

12 April 2007

Gilbert Murray

[from Gilbert Murray's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, published as The Classical Tradition in Poetry in 1927]

It is difficult in any circumstances to predict what one literature can learn from another. And the classical literatures, it might plausibly be argued, have long since taught English quite as much as can be considered desirable, and in some matters a great deal more. Still, as Shelley says, poetry is infinite. And a man must, I think, be in a state of "savage torpor" who imagines that he has no more to learn from Homer or Vergil. . . .

Of course, there is a strong spirit abroad which tries to throw off rules and exactitude. It is proud of trusting not to measured feet, but merely to its ear, which is perfectly sound doctrine if the ear is correct, but not otherwise. Unfortunately it hates a correct ear almost as much as a measured foot. Such a school, whether it makes merely for rough versification or definitely for vers libre, has its place and its justification in the progress of poetry; but the classical tradition will probably continue to look for advance by writing better and more carefully, not more carelessly and impatiently. No one can be sure that a method is wrong until it has been well tried; but it is difficult to expect good permanent results from one which is based predominantly on contempt for the practice of good poets, on self-assertion rather than worship, and on ennui rather than delight. Otherwise no one can prophesy or point the way. A poet must love the Tradition; otherwise he will not love poetry. He must love language and be tender and reverent with it, as well as bold; or he will never have master of its secrets. He must care enough for his work not to notice how much time and trouble he spends on it. He must, as Plutarch warns us, not be like those false lovers of Penelope who, when the found the Queen obdurate, contented themselves with the handmaids. It is along some such lines as these, and not by violent divergence from them, that I should expect to see the modern world find its way to some new Dante or Milton or Goethe, a poietes-aoidos who will bring back into our poetry the forgotten music of the lyre and the old sweep of the sea-bird.

Carl Jung via May Sarton

[from May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, 1973]

If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. He lives in "The House of Gathering." Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.

09 April 2007

Harryette Mullen (for the pigs in my family)

[from Harryette Mullen's Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge,2006]

Off the pig, ya dig? He squeals, grease the sucker. Hack that fatback, pour the pork. Pig out, rib the fellas. Ham it up, hype the tripe. Save your bacon, bring home some. Sweet dreams pigmeat. Pork belly futures, larded accounts, hog heaven. Little piggish to market. Tubs of guts hog wilding. A pig of yourself, high on swine, cries all the way home. Streak o' lean gets away cleaner than Safeway chitlings. That's all, folks.

07 April 2007

Thomas Lowell Beddoes

[from Death's jest Book, 1850]

What is the lobster's tune when he is boiled?
I hate your ballads that are made to come
Round like a squirrel's cage, and round again.
We nightingales sing boldly from our hearts:
So listen to us.

                            . . . How I despise
All you mere men of muscle! It was ever
My study to find out a way to godhead,
And on reflection soon I found that first
I was half created; that a power
was wanting in my soul to be a soul,
And this was mine to make . . .

05 April 2007

Louise Bogan

[After a lifetime of reading Helen Vendler's poetry criticism, I find it refreshing to go back and read her predecessor, Louise Bogan, who was not only a fine critic but also a fine poet. It's more than refreshing to read what Bogan wrote (cf. A Poet's Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation) in 1940 about R. P. Blackmur]

R. P. Blackmur, author of the Expense of Greatness, is a good critic because he is serious, and has both sensibility and intellectual subtlety. He has, it is true, in a marked degree, the faults of these virtues. . . .

Although he can be completely wrong on matters situated on what he himself would call “the periphery,” Blackmur is frequently beautifully right in matters situated at the center. . . .

Blackmur, however, has serious lacunae in his special knowledge. And he carries an impeding, almost crippling, amount of extra baggage in the form of a whole critical vocabulary taken over from the moral philosophy so popular in English and American universities since the last war. If Blackmur made a determined effort to throw out of his vocabulary such words as “synergical,” “sordor,” “anterior,” “quotidian,” and most especially, “heuristic,” it would be all to the good. The terms from moral philosophy, too, tend to reduce some of his passages to pure Swahili . . . And they are not native to Blackmur's cast of mind; when he lets himself go he tends to think in images. This philosophic apparatus, moreover, is manipulated, often, with a kind of swank unbecoming to a sincere critic.

As his perceptions, for some reason, are likely to be good or bad in alternation, his courage, too, often wavers. He can be courageously offhand and even — surprisingly — flip in dealing with obviously bad poets; on the other hand, he treads rather carefully, mincing every statement into the minutest segments, in order to get around saying something directly damning about someone who, by reason of established position or what not, is not quite attackable. Using his own methods alone, he can be triumphantly right and revealing, in the case of T. E. Lawrence (this essay, in spite of its almost impenetrable structure and style, is the best in the book), while remaining incomplete and even biased in the cases of Yeats and Hardy. . . .

A perusal of some intense, personal, non-philosophic criticism, of the sort contained, for example, in Flaubert's Correspondance, would do Mr. Blackmur a world of good. French criticism of all periods might help him to overcome the more annoying — to the reader — coils and tangles of his subtlety. But he is on the side of the angels, and only needs more impatience, more courage, and perhaps ten more years of varied experience and wider reading, to make him a critic of imposing stature and of the first order.

04 April 2007

Anne Pierson Wiese

[from Anne Pierson Wiese's Floating City, 2007, winner of the Walt Whitman Award]

Profile of the Night Heron

In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden the night
heron is on his branch of his tree, blue
moon curve of his body riding low
above the pond, leaves dipping into water
beneath him, green and loose as fingers.
On the far shore, the ibis is where
I left him last time, a black cypher
on his rock. These birds, they go to the right
place every day until they die.

There are people like that in the city,
with signature hats or empty attaché cases,
expressions of private absorption fending
off comment, who attach to physical
locations — a storefront, a stoop, a corner,
a bench — and appear there daily as if for a job.
They negotiate themselves into the pattern
of place, perhaps wiping windows, badly,
for a few bucks, clearing the stoop of take-out
menus every morning, collecting the trash
at the base of the WALK/DON’T WALK sign
and depositing it in the garbage can.

Even when surfaces change, when the Mom & Pop
store becomes a coffee bar, when the park
benches are replaced with dainty chairs and a pebble
border, they stay, noticing what will never change:
the heartprick of longitude and latitude
to home in on, the conviction that life
depends, every day, on what outlasts you.