Amuse-bouche: Sunday 6 December 2020

This week: some thoughts on the untimely timeliness of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Douglas E. Christie, early on in his The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, contrasts John Muir on a sugar pine with Ronald Reagan on the redwood. For Muir, the tree before him is “an inexhaustible study and source of pleasure” noting how “at the age of fifty to one hundred years it begins to acquire individuality, so that no two are alike in their prime or old age. Every tree calls for special admiration.” On the other hand, running to be governor of California, Ronald Reagan (in)famously observed, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.”

However much Reagan’s words express an entire culture, what Christie’s juxtaposition brought to my mind was, first, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notion of “inscape”, that which individuates each thing as the unique, singular thing it is, what Muir perceived in the mature sugar pine and what Reagan and his ilk are insensitive to. Hopkins’ sensitivity to the singularity of individuals expressed itself in a number of ecopoems avant le lettre. One thinks of his lament for a felled grove, “Binsey Poplars”, or the more profound, radical grappling with the destruction of the natural world, “God’s Grandeur”, a poem I’ve long had by heart. Hopkins’ sensibility in this regard breathes the same spirit as what inspires Christie’s attempt to find common ground between contemplative traditions, primarily those of antique and medieval Christianity, and contemporary ecological thought and concerns.

Of course, Hopkins’ poetry is not only precocious in its concerns, but in its formal innovations. On the one hand, he was motivated by the etymological fascinations with the then-new discipline of philology to dig into the roots of the English language and the prosody and potentials of the soil from which it sprang to develop his own markedly singular style, characterized by its alliteration, “sprung rhythm”, and coinages. His poetic oeuvre is rife with examples, one dazzling as it dense being “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”. Such sensitivity to language as poetry’s material ground and the invention that it motivates makes Hopkins a precursor of that poetics that finds its most extreme expression in the coinages of Celan, for instance, or the metrical inventions of, surprisingly, William Carlos Williams in his searching out the “variable foot” proper to the American vulgar tongue. Little wonder Jerome Rothenberg includes Hopkins in the opening selections of his assemblage Poems for the Millennium, volume one.

Finally, it strikes me that Hopkins is also ahead of his time in possessing and presenting a sense of what today goes by the more general rubric of “mindfulness” (something Williams, too, expresses as early as 1921 in his poem “Thursday”). The meditative, contemplative mindset is most emphatically attentive, as Hopkins was, to the individual (rather than then type) and the material (as something in-itself rather than merely as for-use, the way his language stands forth rather than retreating into meek transparency). It does, however, also, culture empathy, kindness, and self-compassion of the kind Hopkins ventures to offer himself in one his “dark sonnets” “My own heart let me more have pity on…”.

Hopkins was one of the first poets I was exposed to in school that turned me on to poetry. It’s good to be reminded of how enduring and inexhaustibly rich his work continues to prove to be.

Amuse-bouche: Saturday 7 November 2020

Things have been quiet here for a number of reasons, but the most important one has been that I just haven’t had in me (for a number of reasons…) what I feel is needed to put into a worthwhile piece of writing. Some of that hesitancy is likely attributable to that vice of perfectionism, which keeps so many from doing anything, so, I’ve come to understand that one way to post here more regularly is to loosen up and just jump into the flow of the moment, however turgid or whitewater, and share here, more or less regularly (weekly?), tidbits that have caught my eye, caught in my craw, or otherwise.

Some of my detractors (well, one) have accused my writing (and not just my poetry) of being obscure, academic, or, at times, pedantic. Despite some of their more uncharitable assumptions, I never set out to bedazzle, confuse or belittle. It turns out my approach is shared by that monumental polymath Buckminster Fuller, who articulated his stylistic credo as follows: “I made up my mind as a Rule of Communication that I wouldn’t care if I was not understood — so long as I was not misunderstood.” I would add to Fuller’s unapologetically sincere stylistic credo Marx’s Hegelian pronouncement: “There is no royal road to science (Wissenschaft), and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep path have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

And speaking of arduous climbs, more taxing than working at poetry is publishing poetry as a small publisher. Sadly, Beth Follet’s Pedlar Press will be shutting down operations in 2021. Pedlar’s aesthetic echoes the sentiments expressed by Fuller and Marx:  “Making no compromise with public taste.” It will come as no small surprise that such an uncompromising stance comes at a price, especially in a society where nothing escapes the dictatorship of the commodity form.

Follet shares a pithy reflection on what happens to small press publishing under the current regime in her Thoughts on Pedlar recently posted at periodicities.

I had the very good fortune to spend an evening in 1996 talking with American poet Adrienne Rich about my vision for Pedlar Press. She said one thing I shall never forget: “Don’t fall in love with the boys’ machinery.“ And what would I say is the boys’ machinery? Media space given over to awards talk and Best Of lists instead of reviews. Five-hundred-word reviews instead of complex critical analyses. The politics behind dumbing down. Technology’s reliance on algorithms which dictate taste, habits, purchases, ads, etc. Dictate lives. Ignorance about how readers of literature read or live in the world, and resultant misdirected and wasteful promotional campaigns.

300px-Vitruvian_Man_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci

I’m unsure I agree with some of the assumptions underwriting what Follett refers to as “the politics of dumbing down,” but a not unrelated phenomenon, no less pernicious than persistent, has imposed itself on my sensorium a number of times this season.

In her Foreword to this years Best Canadian Poetry, Anita Lahey writes about the poems included in this year’s edition as follows:

These were poems: real, handmade (and handheld) forms built to hold, and simultaneously express, universal truths about the human experience.

Lahey is in “good”, as it were, company in valuing  the way poetry, at least, expresses “universal truths about the human experience.” Lavinia Greenlaw, the chair of judges for this year’s T. S. Eliot Prize, recently said of the adjudicating process:

We had to be convinced by them as relevant in a profoundly changed world, which meant that we had to be able to connect with them at the level of essential human experience, which is where I believe poetry is really produced, and poetry is really received.

And the cognoscenti will surely remember that Louise Glück, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was cited “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Those who share my education, will remember such evocations of these “universals of human experience” from their high school, if not undergrad, English class, along with the Three Themes of literature, Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself (sic, sic, sic, sic, and sic). That such an aesthetic can still hold sway in 2020 among people one would hope continued to live a life of the mind after completing their formal education is demoralizing. Lahey’s observation is especially ironic, given how Marilyn Dumont, this year’s editor, remarks how she proceeded with a keen sense of how “writers of colour, Indigenous writers, women, LGBQT2S, writers with physical challenges, have all been underrepresented in the publishing world”, namely, writers whose difference from that presumably universal norm has led to their being overlooked.

[And it occurred to me upon reflection not long after writing and publishing this post the sharp irony of Lahey’s,  Greenlaw’s and Glück’s all being women, that one class of human being that has had and must continue to fight to have its experience recognized as belonging among those universals poetry and art supposedly address…]

I’ll pass over in silence here the admitted dialectic at work that would both undermine my critique and harmonize Lahey & Co.’s retrograde aesthetic sentiments with Dumont’s more progressive ones, a dialectic, being a lively one, that would also overturn itself again, in turn, merely to note that the thesis that poetry is concerned with “expressing universals of human experience” was, in the anglophone world, at least, most forcefully articulated by Matthew Arnold. He, along with the architects of English as an academic study, weaponized English literature into a means of persuading those disenfranchised at home (Arnold writes Culture and Anarchy in the wake of the Chartism, that working class movement that agitated to expand the vote to include working class men), not to mention those in the colonies, that, despite appearances, the upper and lower classes, and the rulers and ruled, were really, deep down, just the same….

Against the zombie aesthetic sentiments skewered above, I’ll finish off here, today, with a quotation and, of all things, a meme.

Theodor Adorno makes in his “On the Crisis of Literary Criticism” (1952)” a characteristically demanding but no less morally scrupulous (and so much more pithy) claim:  “Criticism has power only to the extent to which every successful or unsuccessful sentence has something to do with the fate of humankind.”

And, finally, words to live by, some wisdomorty of Rick:

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Arachnophobic Arachnophilia

A friend recently shared a factoid from Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson book Extraordinary Insects, that the sum of insect “meat” consumed annually by spiders is higher than the total amount of meat and fish consumed by the human population of Earth. I responded alluding to my deep-seated arachnophobia, probed, here, in a poem from Grand Gnostic Central.


Arachnophobia Prima Facie

“God is the spider in the closet”

Though having an insect’s ratio of legs to body segments is not
And though envenomed like bees wasps and hornets is solitary
A nomadic hunter or sedentary in an architecture species specific
Whose strands are two those adhesive catching any lighting
Others pull like the line on a bob
All have fangs that paralyse no mouth but hollow teeth that suck what they injected digested
Wind carries desiccated exoskeletons away

*

I remember playing in the sandbox
The reek of catshit smooth as clay
Feeling a mosquito on my head
Slapping and looking at its ten long legs
Each twitching

My parents say before I talked
They heard me scream in the sandbox
All there was to scare me
A Daddy Longlegs stumbling in flight
To me

*

Once a glisten from roof to front porch railing
Made me pluck a strand finer than nylon it gave like
Dropping a spider big as my thumb at me

That Summer they had webs in every corner of the back fence
And under eaves and in drainpipes
And I crushed them all Summer with the butt end of a sawed-off hockey stick

They red brown their guts yellow slow white
Our neighbour caught one in his back porch light
The jar misty with web the spider thin beside a yellowing drop days later

I identified it to Mr Froh my biology teacher
As a Brown Recluse a black violin on its abdomen
One of three poisonous species in North America

*

Larger females
Eat the males
On mating

*

After they said Athene
Finding Arakhne’s cloth woven
To show her family’s purple adulteries
And incest perfect rent it enraged

*

Hanged Arakhne a spider turning

James Dunnigan’s Wine and Fire now available as an e-book

James Dunnigan is one of the most exciting young new poets I know writing today, a claim I make rarely.

Now, his chapbook Wine and Fire is available as an e-book for $5.00 Canadian, less than the cost of a pumpkin spice latte and a hell of lot sweeter and more nutritious!

You can see and hear Dunnigan read, below, and get your e-copy of Wine and Fire, here.

Chez Pam Pam: new volume from George Slobodzian

George Slobodzian, a poet-friend whose work I’ve admired and often lauded from the chez pam pamstart (over thirty years ago, now) finally has a new volume of poems out:  a hefty forty-five-page chapbook Chez Pam Pam from Montreal’s Cactus Press.

For now, it’s readable only as an e-book (for all of CAN$5.00). I look forward to holding the physical volume in hand. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite for the real thing with Slobodzian’s poetry, which is, more importantly, the real thing.

 

“Now who is there to share a joke with?”

The words in this post’s title are Ezra Pound’s when he heard of T. S. Eliot’s death.

By chance, I was reminded that eleven years ago today, 10 June, a friendship of mine ended, one of that kind mourned by Pound at the loss of his friend.

Understandably, this friend, “Laszlo” in the poem, below, shows up in no small number of my poems, by various names. I share here this one, a joke, for those who might get the formal allusion, memorializing the last time he, I, and the third of our trio, all lived in the same city.

 

A sonnet is a moment’s &tc.

 

Laszlo, I wish you, and George, and I

were in that calèche, stalled in traffic,

left, McGill’s gate, Place Ville Marie right,

you flying to love in Holland. Straight out

Upstairs you hailed the passing, empty carriage.

We stopped at a dep George ran in for beer,

our cool québécoise driver declining

a draw or drink. Who can say why

she took the route she did, knowing you‘d

lived here forty years? Just, there we were,

Guiness sixpack shared around, a blue smoke

cloud coughing fit, riding high, our post-

Stammtisch Triangulation Finale

for all rush hour to see, invisible.

Condensation as Recomposition

Like many these days, I’ve been passing the time enjoying various televisual entertainments, most notably very carefully rationing out my viewing of Paolo Sorrentino‘s The Young Pope and The New Pope. Among these series’ many pleasures is the soundtrack, which introduced me to the British cellist and composer Peter Gregson.

Gregson, along with Max Richter, have both written what they term “recompositions”, Gregson recomposing Bach’s cello suites and Richter Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Gregson’s and Richter’s reworkings are not without precedent:  it’s an old compositional trick to take a phrase or theme from another composer’s music as an element for a new work of one’s own. These recompositions are, however, admittedly more radical and thorough reworkings of the original material.

In my own way, I’ve been writing recompositions for a long while. 779px-Electret_condenser_microphone_capsulesOne form, inspired by Pound’s found dictum that “dichten = condesare” (roughly, to write poetry is to condense), I termed “condensations”. The simplest compositional procedure, a manner of erasure avant le lettre, was to reduce a given text according to a rule.

The example I share below compresses H.D.’s book Sea Garden into a single poem, rendering each of the volume’s poems as a couplet made of the poem’s first and last line. I retained H.D.’s original capitalization and punctuation as a tacit way of  indicating my recomposition was in a no way a unified, straight-ahead lyric poem. The results of this poetic compositional procedure strike me now as being very aesthetically similar to Gregson’s and Richter’s musical recompositions, which is why I share the poem “Sea Garden” from Ladonian Magnitudes, below.

 

 

Sea Garden

after H.D.

 

Rose, harsh rose,

hardened in a leaf?

 

Are your rocks shelter for ships—

from the splendour of your ragged coast.

 

The light beats upon me.

among the crevices of the rocks.

 

What do I care

in the larch-cones and the underbrush.

 

Your stature is modelled

for their breadth.

 

Reed,

To cover you with froth.

 

Whiter

Discords.

 

Instead of pearls—a wrought clasp—

no bracelet—accept this.

 

The light passes

and leaf-shadow are lost.

 

I have had enough.

Wind-tortured place.

 

Amber husk

as your bright leaf?

 

The sea called—

The gods wanted you back.

 

Come, blunt your spear with us,

And drop exhausted at our feet.

 

You are clear

of your path.

 

The white violet

frost, a star edges with its fire.

 

Great, bright portal,

still further on another cliff.

 

I saw the first pear

I bring you as an offering.

 

They say there is no hope—

and cherish and shelter us.

 

Bear me to Dictaeus

and frail-headed poppies.

 

The night has cut

to perish on the branch.

 

It is strange that I should want

as the horsemen passed.

 

You crash over the trees,

a green stone.

 

Weed, moss-weed,

stained among the salt weeds.

 

The hard sand breaks,

Shore-grass.

 

Silver dust

in their purple hearts.

 

Can we believe—by an effort

their beauty, your life.

 

A Sonot at Easter: “Come out of the cave…”

Back in the early Nineties of last century (!) when I wrote this poem, the fashion among many Canadian (at least) poets was to write sonnet sequences. By chance, one day, I wrote a poem (“I know the Aurora Borealis” in Grand Gnostic Central) that happened to have fourteen lines. That chance (which to my ear happily rhymes with ‘chants’) occurrence began an ongoing, half-satirical series of accidentally-fourteen-line poems I called variously over the years “soughknots” (literally “air-knots”) and here “sonots” (so not sonnets!).

Its being Easter Sunday brought to mind the opening line and title of another sonot from Ladonian Magnitudes, “Come out of the cave…”, a poem marked by if not marking the emergence of sociality with the warmer days of spring. Of course, now, with the social distancing imposed by Covid-19, getting out into the warmer sunshine is more delayed than it was in 1992, but, then, the poem wanders through art and memory, too, where we can all sojourn until we emerge from this present staid-of-emergency.

 

“Come out of the cave…”

 

Come out of the cave

Spring’s first cold night

After an afternoon on the Thing with George

Embryons desséchés and six Gnosiennes, followed by Sonatine bureaucratique and Le Picadilly in the air

This time the third

I think of the natural periodical ecstasy

We call sleep

And consequently dream

Washing and drying the dishes

After the red cabbage, letcho, and potatoes sour-style

Everything put away in place for tomorrow

I pour the hot milk into the yoghurt jars

Remembering measuring solutions in Chemistry

Certain of the results

For the love of Dante

Every Easter I read through Dante’s Divine Comedy, and when I’m teaching, the Inferno holds centre spot in a course I try to give every Winter term, “Go to Hell!”.

That love for Dante and the Commedia Dante_Lucamakes its way into my poetry, too. A reader sensitized to this fact will fill a big basket of easter eggs reading through my books, published and unpublished.

Rarely, my love for his work is expressed outright, like in this short poem, “The book I can’t read closed beside me…”, that you can hear, here:

 

Of course, you’ll get even greater pleasure reading through the Commedia outloud over Easter week:  the Inferno, Good Friday through to Easter Sunday morning; the Purgatory, from Easter Sunday to Easter Wednesday; then begin the Paradiso Easter Thursday and ascend at your leisure!

You can hear the Commedia in Italian and English translation, at the Princeton Dante Project, here.

 

Between Myth and Modernity

Lee Maracle, an eminent Sto:Loh nation author recently shared a brief story on Facebook in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As it has been widely and freely shared there, I trust I am not overstepping by sharing it here:

I think we should talk to this virus. Once upon a time the viruses ruled the [earth] and the trees walked. Raven and eagle called a gathering what can we do the fragile ones are dying. Cedar stepped forward and said we will be still the invisible beings (bacteria and viruses[)] can live in the dark in our roots. And the tree stood still and the bacteria and viruses lived underground. But now clearcutting is letting them loose. We can send them back. Let us talk to this virus and ask it to return to the tree roots. Asking with a pipe to talk [to] the virus!!!!

I was moved to respond to Maracle’s story and wrote the poem (below in PDF format), all the while painfully cognizant of certain complications I want to address explicitly.

First, a white settler man writing a response to something a First Nations woman writer has written is fraught with complications (such a simple word, for all its syllables!). For this reason, I sought to answer her story with a story or account of my own, rather than writing, e.g., a critique couched in the language and epistemic and social stance of epidemiology. Moreover, I was careful not to pretend to be correcting her error with my truth:  my poem’s third line, “…from what I’ve heard”; I place two stories side by side, rather than try to replace one with the other (however much they disagree). In ancient Greece, for example, competing stories about the gods existed concurrently, peacefully, because the Hellenes understood, as Herodotus tells us, the poets created their gods.

More fundamentally my writing this poem and thinking about and over it the way I have is motivated by my concern (not position on) over the relation of myth and modernity. Maracle shares what to European settler ears is a mythic, premodern mode of apprehending the world. But it wasn’t that long ago, only centuries, that Europe itself underwent what has become known as the Enlightenment, itself only a moment in a process of “modernization” beginning with the Scientific Revolution when mythic modes of thought were slowly and painfully replaced by rational, scientific modes and the world (in Max Weber’s words) disenchanted.

This relation between what I call here myth and modernity is far from simple. On the one hand, mythic ways of understanding what is are forced into having to come to terms with this new, undoubtedly powerful way of grasping Nature. On the other hand, if the two are understood as being in opposition, then that opposition is one that self-deconstructs (in the rigorous sense):  painstaking reflection can reveal how each term is a species of the other (as Lévi-Strauss shows at length, myth is a mode of thought every bit as rigorous and possessed of truth as the natural sciences, while the work of Adorno and others reveals the mythological character of Reason…), while not collapsing the two into each other or into a higher, truer unity (sublate them, in Hegel’s word). They remain in fraternal conflict and, ideally, dialogue. Anyone familiar with my poetic or critical work will know this problem is an active and ongoing concern…

How, then, to modernize myth, as it were, so the mythic and scientific can come into conversation? This is what I attempt in my own very small-scale way with my poem:  to answer a story with a story, as a story rather than critique, and in a manner that echoes that of the story being answered, the style of a folk or fairy tale (hers begins “Once upon a time…”).

If only the matter were so simple. After strenuous conversations with friends about the poem and no little rumination on my part, I’m forced to conclude the poem faces a very great danger of being misconstrued (which it is likely to be, anyway) if it’s read apart from Maracle’s story, let alone this blog post. Therefore, I post below the final version of the poem (which underwent countless revisions and incremental emendations) in the context here of Maracle’s text and the preceding apologia. Here, then, seems to be the poem’s final home.

Virus talk (final)