Poetry's Over and Over.
We nodded; though, to be honest, those hi's sounded pretty much the same to me; on the scale of 1 to 10 in the great order of hi-dom, about average, a 4 or a 5. Still, we nodded. Of course, we nodded. John was our friend; we wished him the best. What does it take to break a heart, then or now? The tables were formica, the astroturf on the floor was stained with God knows what. But there was John, almost triumphant, caught up in his guesswork, no, certain, past his guesswork via that one word, over and over, the curious mantra of it, a piece of rope held out over the abyss. Poor rope! But the power in such repetition, no matter how small a thing repeated--what mystery is that? Even now, maybe especially now, nearly thirty years later, my husband and I can call up this moment, this scene--and do--as metaphor, as template, a thing some hopeless new experience might remind us of and echo. We only have to say to each other--in the way of long marriages--"she said hi," and John's face, its gentle urgency comes bac k. And the rest of us come back too, eyeing each other around that table, not (for once) laughing, touched by such delicate and really pointless longing.
I admit it--this is one of my favorite stories and I don't know how many times I've told it. But I feel lucky to have witnessed it. John's' desperate wish to make meaning where there was none, is, I suppose, the moving thing but his passionate repeated examination of that most conventional utterance reaches back somewhere--to childhood lullabies that might scare the dark, to ancient rituals that might draw in the beast without violence, to some point where fate is dear and exactly-surprisingly--what is wanted after all. Maybe it's not as hard as I thought to define poetry.
More and more, it's the obvious that turns mysterious on us, or so it seems to me. For instance, that this thing-poetry--that Wallace Stevens claimed existed in the world whether poems were written or not--has something powerfully to do with how things repeat, that things repeat at all, why they can't help repeating. Perhaps I mean this, for starters, in the most Cliched and unconscious physical way. Heart and lungs with their endless in and out; inevitable fall, past the cold dark, year after year to inevitable spring; cells-repeated uncountably so the child grows up, grows other, into not-just-a-child; the way the body itself, so my friend Pat DeFlaun in nursing school tells me, is so wedded to the good repeat that any departure--one heartbeat skipped, one cell going haywire--is suspect and possibly pathological. So the body's arsenal rushes to fix things, white cells flashing, pacemaker renotching the faulty rhythm to regain the plain old, plain old. And we wait for that familiar cadence, in spite of our incredible twentieth century hunger for invention and pledge of allegiance to Ezra-Pound's great call to poets to "make it new," the way wait--these mornings when I write--as my teenage son downstairs slowly rides the anguished notes upward, practicing for the umpteenth time past his doubts and swearing stops/starts, the first movement of Elgar's cello concerto with its own terrible if only, if only, a darkened rise that stuns and surprises and moves me more the more times I hear it.
In musicology, this whole notion of repetition, redundancy, the repeat has been studied way past anyone's patience, of course, the whys of its curious effects to a large extent as physiological and primal as anything governed by heart or lungs. Something that comes up again and again is the matter of simple fuel: it takes energy to stay with a run of music (or for that matter, a run of words); one is alert, pressed forward, a receiver; a kind of tension is set into place. And then, a part of the music (or the poem) recurs. What happens in such a moment? In poetry, the critic Harvey Gross has suggested that any repeated business is a "voiced pause," a trick in a way, a method of claiming silence, I suppose, while not being silent at all. In music there's similar read on this, but more, repetition is less static, thought to concern the "economics of dynamic psychology," or so Heinz Kohut and Siegmund Levarie called it in an article first published fifty years ago. The economics of the thing--a kind of exchange , a fluid arrangement. But they go further, into a more astonishing discovery. It's just that "when hearing a phrase or a melody for the second time," these two, a doctor and a psychologist wrote, "the listener saves a part of the energy required for a first hearing. He recognizes it, that is, (it) requires less effort to master it than when it was new. The surplus energy is one of the sources which enable the listener to experience joy." Amazing, I thought, when I first saw this. All this extra energy saved by the repeat--the body actually reads that as joy. So that's what happens, every time I listen to Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, the haunting solo, once established by violin, taken up how many times by flute and other instruments in the orchestra, though my sense of what is called "joy" in this context contains all manner of other riches that comfort and oddly sustain--sadness, for one, regret, or the faintest hope. But the point is, one feels it, which is to say, according to researchers, it is physi cal, this powerful response because energy, one might even say calories, are actually saved back and released as small explosions within. So one, in a way, lets go. One doesn't have to do or understand. The sound glides over and under and wherever sound goes. One deepens, one dreams exactly because one doesn't rush forward, all ears and tension. So it's suddenly obvious why Freud might want to connect repetition with that utterly final peacemaker, the death instinct. Or why the word "repeat"--according to my linguist friend Mary Niepokuj--shares an ancient Indo-European root with the word "feather." One's released, afloat, somehow suspended into a small nowhere for a moment. If art is a drug, maybe this is one sweet reason for addiction.
That small nowhere in a poem such as Philip Larkin's "Toads Revisited" gradually exudes a similar solacing melancholy, and largely through its repetition, this meditation of a working person on the plight of the old who no longer work, who can now glory in walks in the park and watching people, who have no hours to keep. All these shoulds of retirement, which, in an entirely perverse Larkinesque way, get turned upside down: it simply isn't like that, not at all, or so suggests our dry-eyed realist speaker. Of those one might "meet of an afternoon"
Palsied old step-takers
Hare-eyed clerks with jitters,
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-bakers-
All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,
Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,
Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias.
There's a comparison coming next; the speaker of the poem putting all this up against his own tedious workaday lot of in-trays and the "shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir" and coming out-barely--the winner. It might be the closest we get to an admission of personal happiness in Larkin. But now, we linger in this passage about the old men, the poet taking time with his images, giving them teeth and substance. More, it's the use of that one line that sharpens all this and throws it into relief--Think of being them!--first as exclamation, astonishment registered, and later, more internalized and grave, cast as a simple declaration, nearly whispered, an idea connected to the thought of failure, the thought of turning that failure over-and over. The fact that Larkin sets the lines as direct address works both the public, rhetorical pulse that runs this poem from the start even as it reaches beyond and beneath that, to more private, disturbing resonance, particularly in the second instance. "Think of being them..." he s ays again, no longer a discovery to be exclaimed but a fact told to the self--terrible and moving--to be mulled over, absorbed. It's probably no accident that the repetition carries this deeply interior feeling--we're in that hovering, nearly suspended state of "the voiced pause" after all--and of course, there's energy released because all forward narrative motion is stalled for a moment in the poem. We don't need to be racing anywhere.
Still, there's something even more unnerving going on. Elsewhere in the research that musicologists do, one finds repetition often connected to threat, to danger, to fate especially if the repeated tones are short, spaced evenly, and followed by a longer, more emphatic note. An often-used example: the famous-unto-cliche opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the old da-da-da-daaaa which foretells such doom. Larkin's repeated think of being them with its deliberate and largely single stresses sets up a personal Threat that will gradually take over the poem. "Nowhere to go but indoors," he continues in the final section already briefly touched upon here,
No friends but empty chairs--
No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
What else can I answer,
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
By the end, in spite of that brave hail-fellow-well-met flourish of "no, give me my in-tray," the earlier identification is sinking in. "Give me your arm, old toad;/ Help me down the cemetery Road" Larkin writes in the evenly balanced final two lines, the poem closing out in the far more conventional presence of fierce, sad end-rhymes--yet another kind of repeating--really a lost, nearly archaic sound of the couplet now, its pure, weighted, unyielding ballast.
Repetition in this odd double mode, as release and anchor, exhiliaration and threat--both push-me and pull-me--is nowhere more evident than in the various forms devised for poems over time. It has been said by critic Paul Fussell that the study of poetry is the study of pattern, which, he says, is the study of repetition. And certainly all our standard poetic shapes, first devised for music or to learn by heart and not particularly for reading, repeat themselves emphatically for both the pleasure of the sound and a greater depth of meaning. The villanelle, for instance, developed in France from an older Italian folk song/dance structure somewhere in the sixteenth century still carries its original lively, almost whimsical impulse though its frill line repetitions--Elizabeth Bishop's "the art of losing isn't hard to master" from her well-known poem, "One Art," a haunting example--have grown darker in the last century, the playfulness gradually more ironic, the repeats more disturbing. In Bishop's case, the mai n recurring line is pretty unidentical by the final stanza--"it's evident/the 'art of losing's not too hard to master," things going haywire now with the added words "not" and "too," as if to say there's order in the world all right, but its sad fate is to be disrupted. In the psychology of music, it's understood that any sudden blockage, any change in expectation--in tempo, key, dynamics--creates an emotional response in the listener, meaning one is moved or exalted or saddened. So comes genuine power in poetry too, from some small mis-step, some change, some slightly skewed image or cadence--the just when we assume something will happen. And guess what? It doesn't, or it does--but not exactly as we thought. No, Bishop tells us, her cheerful credibility slipping now, "the art of losing's not too hard to master." And we feel that darkened shift, a way into grief; that small variation hits hard, bringing us suddenly into the real subject of the poem. Even Fussell cites such "imbalance" as the crucial thing of poetry, quoting Swinburne to back him up: "there can be no verse where there is no modulation."
But modulation only works when the bass line is clear, and bass line repetition floods our traditional forms. The sestina, an incredibly complicated creature invented by what must have been some very bored troubadours, uses repeated words throughout--at the end of lines, and cast more thickly in the final stanza--to make a dense, seemingly obsessive richness. Or the ballad, with its famous refrain over and over taking us back to the real point of things. Or, of course, the sonnet which is said most to resemble the way humans actually think, problem set up and--bingo!--solved or at least mulled over to death, the rhyme throughout simply repeated pressure points on whatever matter is the matter, the answer set with simplicity and often, real majesty, by the final hit of the ending couplet. All these forms show us again that poetry is fashioned, put together, that art is, in part at least, artifice, that the oldest root of our word "make" is mag, "to knead," be it clay for bricks or dough for bread--yet another repetitive motion at the heart of human survival.
One of our most venerable shapes--the litany--is something that has haunted us from the start--way back there amid all that busy "magging"--especially in its connection to religious incantatory traditions; the Bible, of course, is part of this, but also the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Koran. This is repetition writ large, frozen into form that seems powered by forces beyond the self, more a communal sound, not, on the face of it, anything as quirky as Larkin's recurring line in "Toads Revisited" although, sometimes, in contemporary use, the old and new mix in surprising ways as in--to bring up music again--the opening of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" where one note repeats thirty-five times, an idea inspired by the composer's travels in the Middle East where he heard the muezzin's lovely, monotonous. summoning of worshippers to prayer. But to break down the litany is to break down the treasure to its smallest crucial part, the anaphora, something from the Greek meaning "a carrying up or back' but in our use, a rep eated word or phrase that nevertheless triggers new moves, that "carrying up" as the poem progresses, and, by way of its seemingly static position in the line, the "carrying back" part of it too; this double effect keeps a powerful pulse going. Walt Whitman comes to mind instantly, Whitman everywhere really, the following dark, almost manic rendering of serious illness in the "To Think of Time" section of Leaves of Grass just an example.
When the dull nights are over, and the dull days also,
When the soreness of lying so much in bed is over,
When the physician, after long putting off, gives the silent and terrible look for an answer,
When the children come hurried and weeping, and the brothers and sisters have been sent for,
When the medicines stand unused on the shelf and the camphor smell has pervaded the room.
In completing this section, the poet answers all these whens with the predictable, causal then ("then the corpse-limbs stretch on the bed, and the living look upon them...") but this common logical pattern was by no means his favorite. Certainly Whitman, as the great American cataloguer, took naturally to repetitive methods of all sorts: he was crazy to get everything in and the repeat brought unlikely things immediately together, made order, made shape, smoothed over the rough edges by the simple power of the voice repeating and thus driving home widening image after image while keeping the lens tapped down and focused. It was a way, in fact, to add enormous detail to the scene while resisting narrative sequence, resisting the forward press of time itself. Instead, there's that curious all-at-once, stopped, near eternal feel in Whitman, even as we get a full restless sweep--background and foreground, a complication usually supplied by story's movement from one set point to another--the physician, in the pass age just mentioned, then the children hurrying, the brothers and sisters coming, the medicines useless now, the terrible camphor smell overpowering the sick room.
The effect from all these small fragments is large. Whitman's method is profoundly lyric though not particularly personal which seems almost an oxymoron given the intense historical connection between the lyric impulse and the self. Of course, the sense of self, Whitman's big voice and its claims, is all over Leaves of Grass. The poem is famous for that. But its movement is lyrical in how it affects us, the readers: we're released--not kept by the confines of story--allowed by the repetitions a seemingly endless amount of time to understand what's happening. Peter Kivy, a philosopher of music, has written how the repeats for composers and anyone who listens perform a similar "obvious and vital" function. They break up what might be a straight out unbending temporal sequence, and offer a "freedom to wander, to linger, to retrace one's steps." Or, more apt in this comparison to poetry, repeats, according to Kivy, not only enable us to "grasp" a pattern--and thus its sense--they allow us the luxury of "groping" for it. Suddenly, we're inside the actual making; the poem or piece of music mimes that making, how the mind goes over and over things in order to order them in the first place. Under the sway of such movement, we grope for, as well as grasp meaning, says Kivy, two things absolutely intertwined in any memorable aesthetic experience. The how and the what, both. In Whitman's work, we see that process close up, his fine, fierce musing built in through the numerous ways he repeats things.
Scanning Leaves of Grass for one of his most common repetitive techniques is easy. We've all done it, I think, keeping our peripheral vision turned low and staring down the left margin where the identical declarative bits beginning nearly each line practically explode off the page--the exuberant speaker pleased with women, primitive tunes, earnest words, pleased with the old and new. Or he's where the path is worn, the quail whistling, the bat flying, the cattle standing, where the human heart's beating, the she-whale swimming. Or there's the law of the past, the present, the law of the living, of promotion, of heroes, of drunkards--nothing gets past this fellow, or refuses him. For instance--as he likes to boast--it's
In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach,
In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powdered bones,
In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying below,
In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
In vain the snake slides through creepers and logs,
In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
In vain the razorbilled auk sails far north to Labrador.
And so on, and on, and on, throughout this amazing American epic. The ancestor here, I think, lies in the very oldest call and response rituals, the individual adding new phrases as the group answers the same way each time, creating tension through opposites: theme and variation, or closer to the bone, safety and danger. How wildly are we willing to travel in the bits that don't repeat before coming back to the solace of the repetition, the increasingly familiar sound? If Pound was right and all poetry, all art, is made of these two elements, the fixed and the variable, Whitman's brilliance lies in the distance he's able to wander between these two points. Here, the "in vain" is a local counterweight against the expansive reach of image that take us as far back in time as the mastodon, as deep in the brain as the great sea monsters that lie in waft. But it's the "in vain ... in vain" that keeps the human pressure on--we might even say keeps poetry on--that intimate yet communal response that convinces and ale rts us, moving us deeper into the next level of meditation and complication.
Repetition, in fact, might be too general a word and not nearly subtle enough for what happens here, since each "in vain" turns up ignited by the run of imagery before it--from rocks and mastodons through buzzards and snakes to elk and auk--images that somehow alter and enrich the seemingly identical phrase intoned as we move on. Something similar about the repeat in music, often spoken of by musicologists, Edward T. Cone among them, concerns how we hear that same melody early then late either in the set A-B-A form of the sonata, or in the more flexible symphonic shape. By the second time, in the recapitulation, it's hardly an honest-to-god repetition at alt--which is to say, now we're, registering everything, including the "variation" that's come between these recurring themes. The context has changed, which, in fact, changes everything. So Whitman's in vain gets larger, more powerful as more and more things are added to the mix: the poet will--will, God damn it--see it all.
In music, theorist Leonard Meyer makes a distinction between two kinds of repetitive method. Too many repetitions--here's where repetition makes a bad name for itself--and the mind longs for relief in variation; all those auks and mastodons and sea monsters desperately wished for now against the tedious run of in vain, in vain. Too few, and we're drowning in dense detail and it's way too weird. We want to be pulled back to the bottom, to some phrase that will soothe us against all this lively rattle; seen in this light, the in vain is solace, a home place. It's the old push me/pull me. But either way, I suppose, Gertrude Stein cut to the chase on this; I'd give her the last word any day. There's no "repetition" in genuine human expression, she wrote, only "insistence," a remark Whitman would have surely cherished, himself a poet who was nothing if not insistent, revising and republishing his Leaves of Grass as many times as he did. But more, invoking her old teacher from Harvard, Stein cast it all in a far more elementary way--"This is what William James calls the Will to Live," she wrote. "If not," she added with a high Whitmanesque drama, "nobody would live."
Such urgency, that insistence, might color everything in poetry, this most personal of all literary forms. Kierkegaard thought it was only through repetition that we created the self at all--a major accomplishment--though certainly poetry goes further than the self, one hopes, at least to include the other, and in the best work--I think we can admit such an ambition--to include the world. The more I read Larry Levis's final book Elegy, the more I'm struck by how powerful and complex repetition, this insistence, can be, how--William James and Gertrude Stein perhaps cheering on the thought--life-giving it seems even in the face, maybe especially in the face, of enormous sorrow, its weave and counterweave. One feels the full weight of Whitman in this posthumous collection, especially in Levis's long and intricate elegies which make up much of the book whose personal. force, as in Whitman's work, seems about even with its public, rhetorical power. The opening passage of one of these, "Elegy with an Angel at it s Gate," is particularly effective in this way, the so-called "Muir in the Wilderness" section which is carefully made of just four. sentences, the last threading down an astonishing forty-nine lines, the whole business cast largely into three line stanzas, whose odd-numbered arrhythmia unsettles and pitches us forward. As with so many pieces in the book, the mood here is meditative, hypnotic and dark, faintly apocalyptic, the tiniest detail looming up, immense, the feel somehow reminiscent of Wallace Stevens in his last poems written in old age, which Randall Jarrell said were "from the other side of existence, the poems of someone who sees things in steady accustomedness, as we do not, and who sees their accustomedness, and them, as about to perish." These "poems," he went on, "magnanimous, compassionate, but calmly exact, grandly plain."
Repetition, the way these things go and come back, guides Levis's poem from the start. "We were the uncountable stars, at first," it begins; in fact, "we were nothing, at first," the two declarations striking a troubling balance, the heady expanse of "stars" against the leveling "nothing," then what we never were--"the color-blind grass ... the pattern of the snake/ fading into the pattern of the leaves." Eventually, as we move into the fourth sentence which itself seems never to stop unfolding and turning back on itself, the whole rich business is triggered and reined in by a simple phrase--"part of"--more subtle, not as predictably sequenced as Whitman's "in vain" or all his whens whens whens in a line, say, but recurring the way a musical phrase reasserts itself just when we were dreaming off under the spell of the detail in some countermeasure. How have we vanished when we were so "uncountable" at first? So runs the suggestion a question seeded in the earlier passage that now forces an answer, made brea thless by long accumulation. And the poem runs on in its "calmly exact" way to render in stunning surprise how such a miracle takes place. How? "by becoming part/ of everything." Which is to say,
part of the horses bending
Their necks to graze, part of every law,
Part of each Apache heirloom for sale
In a window, part of the wedding cake,
Part of the smallpox epidemic, part of God,
Part of each blind crossroad, part
Of the ending rain turning to snow,
Part of each straw in the lighted,
open doors of boxcars as they pass,
Part of the wars, part of each silk piece
Of lingerie, part of what can never be
Untangled, evaluated, cross-examined.
And so it goes on, past lovers and the drive-in movie, and the scent of linen, past the oldest trees and the "slaughterhouse with its fly-covered/ Windows"--all part of us now, or more humbly, we, a part of them in the great vanishment. It was Frost who claimed that the overwhelming subject of poetry is always death--Dickinson's infamous "flood subject"--its shadow lurking even in the happiest of pieces. But Levis's refusal to close down this run of thought even on the most basic sentence level, forcing that cadence on and on through forty-nine lines, the dark vitality in every move to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing suggests undoubtedly the "will to live" that Stein understood even in the simplest, most awkward repetition. Yet Levis is neither simple nor awkward. How his assemblage turns both garish and vast, past irony into something far more unnerving is the thing that silences.
To be part of another, larger thing that ends
By becoming a movie about it, the popcorn,
The audience sitting there watching it
With their mouths open, the big screen there
In front of them, each one a part of it
Designed to stroll languidly out
Into the hot, impossible night in the city.
And now the sound is the sound of conclusion, no longer the layering "part of" but the phrase wound tightly, embedded into the on-going fleshed-out image of the movies, then out into the street, the scene transformed to mean in a dizzying way--"to be part of another larger thing," he writes. And of course, we're ready for that closure as the section ends, that ballast of the expanded image, everything slowing down, as nearly hypnotized unto exhaustion as we are by now through the long expressive extravagance of the Levis's repetitive moves.
It's deeply physical, such movement. Certainly the idea of "something larger" is expertly mimed in how this outrageous sentence plays out, or rather, plays itself out. The poem both says and does, in equal measure. So it convinces us. Which is to say, we no longer need convincing.
It's something the body knows, visiting cellist Gary Hoffman is telling us in his master class at Indiana University. My son and I have driven two hours south to get here, through thunderstorms and their sudden clearing, and he's telling us it's muscle memory, how the arm slowly absorbs the way of notes, phrases, whole movements by the simple over and over, repeating the fingering endlessly, the intricate bow strokes until one can play not thinking of the how and even past the mysterious what to something else wholly personal. My son leans his head close to mine. "Correct repetition is the mother of skill," he says, quoting a favorite piece of advice from his own cello teacher, Eric Edberg. I think of how many times while writing a poem I've read outloud the last line I've barely managed, or the last stanza, again and again reading it out, hoping the repetition might lure what's coming, hoping by the ritual to go empty and alert enough to get to the next line, to receive the next line, though I know that's n ot exactly what these cellists mean.
On the stage, Hoffman is modest and funny, somber by turns, entirely engaging; we're totally smitten. Where did that first note come from? he suddenly asks after a long pause, asks the young woman who has just played for him and us Bach's Prelude to the difficult and haunting Sixth Cello Suite. She looks at him blankly. But we're blank too. I notice a few people glancing at each other. You see, it's not just you, he tells her. You're coming into the middle of the thing. That music's been going on all the time. You're just now hearing it, picking it up, letting it come through you. The young woman looks puzzled. For the first time, it's completely quiet in the room. That's spooky, my son whispers to me.
He was right. It was spooky--the dead speaking to us that way, as if nothing stops, ever. Every world continues, every voice. It's just happenstance, or luck, that we hear it. And Hoffman went on to an array of other matters, large and small, my son writing it all down in his red notebook but I stayed back, hopelessly mulling. Certain, moments are gifts, after all, heat sinks, really, for all manner of thought. Later, we might connect the dots backward and see where things began. Later, I thought about Eliot's old saw of an essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," though it's easy, even a mild pleasure to these more populist days to look dimly upon its patrician airs and haughty notions. After all, do we really need to read every bit of western poetry from Homer on before we've' earned the 'right to cobble together one decent line of verse? Eliot's answer: well, yes...
Still, beyond the pedantic sense, of that piece--and certainly of Eliot himself--one finds some un-mensely eerie and useful things. Gary Hoffman to the young cellist that autumn day in Bloomington: Listen, it's not just you. You're coming into the middle of the thing. And Eliot? Anyone who would "be a poet past his 25th year" requires "the historical sense (which) involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence ... its simultaneous existence" with our own. Repetition, then, on a massive, stranger scale, beyond the repeat of line and rhythm and phrase within a single poem. One could claim that every word we ever use a repetition, the same for any poetic shape or form, or even genre, I suppose, no matter how willfully we stir it up to make it ours. Because, inevitably, a long line of love poems stands behind the one just written; all the elegies ever invented in their mix of fever and calm loom up before this one which came yesterday; whatever "emotion recollected in tranquility" we might name or long for, there were how many hundreds, thousands of poets who once worked toward similar meditative shapes and cadences? George Oppen's straightforward warning comes back: "Be careful," he wrote. "Study the words you have written for the words have a longer history than you do, and say more than you know." How many worlds are there, past and present, flooding this moment? I think there must be simpler ways to go mad.
But Eliot brings up something far more jarring and mysterious--and, I have to say, more- immediately personal--in that essay. Although obviously coming out of the early twentieth century's own culture wars, the other side headed up by his old friend Pound and his insistence that poets make everything new and not cling to the tedium of metronome and formula, Eliot's ideas--especially in what follows--strike me not so much as holding 'the grand old line as suggesting something truly odd, even surreal. He makes, in fact, an outrageous claim. "Our tendency," he wrote, is "to insist
whenever we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else ... We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's differences from his predecessors ... Whereas if we approach a poet without prejudice, we should often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
I remember reading about Elizabeth Bishop when she was a college student first finding Gerald Manley Hopkins, her thrill over one small eccentric move of his, personal aside, a parenthetical exclamation "Fancy, come faster!" right in the middle of his long, early poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland." Maybe it all depends on which dead poet then, which ancestor one chooses to repeat. At any rate, it was exactly the kind of parenthetical note to the self that ended up as one of-the much loved quirky trademarks of Bishop's own work.
Still, the dead speaking to us seems to be something built right into the basic muscle and bone of all this, whether we will it or not. The mystery of line breaks, for instance--half the time, we're automatically breaking' the line in all the given ways, which is to say on the phrase--a communal gesture if there ever was one, the way 'meaning has been routinely parceled out in English, spoken or written, since the start of things. This, against a more independent move to enjamb in some offbeat, deliberate way, to hold a note--so to speak--a little longer than usual for personal emphasis. That's genuine play between the living and the dead. Or the immense power--maybe even Eliot's "best" and "most individual" part of a poet's work--in what happens when we have the nerve to take on some image or idea already worked seemingly to its last breath through time and habit--a cliche or near it--as Lesha Hurliman, a poet in my graduate workshop at Purdue did recently, taking up the hopelessly worn-out image of the Am erican eagle, to turn its 4000 pound drag' by her wildness and anguish into something freshly seen and considered.
Repetition in any art--and maybe this gets at Eliot's point about poetry--might be finally about ambition: the wish to take on certain solid and lasting things--subjects, states of mind, habits of thought--that have seized human beings from the beginning, then work from there. Still, the whole notion is spooky, as my son would say. I can't help it; I keep going back to that quiet hall in Bloomington, Bach's music rising out of nowhere how many centuries later, our own weird time warp, this over and over, the world repeating itself. It's an odd tension--past and present colliding within a personal lens. That's what stops us, silences us, that reach inward and outward, backward and forward at once, the fine, dangerous imbalance of it. And this is a terrible risk. Wallace Stevens--who himself wasn't' above taking on the great old subjects, love and death and reverie, howbeit in the-most peculiar ways--wrote in a letter to a friend in 1948 that poetry was, for most people, partly a matter of "listening for echoes , because the echoes are familiar ... (wading) through it the way a boy wades through water, feeling with his toes for the bottom.' The echoes," he said, "are the bottom." And the water? I imagine it eye-level in the blinding afternoon light, the long blue expanse, that lovely suspension. And one could so easily drown in it.
MARIANNE BORUCH has four collections of poems, the most recent, A Stick that Breaks and Breaks, from Oberlin College Press, and a book of essays, Poetry's Old Air in the "Poets on Poetry" Series from Michigan. She teaches in the MFA Program at Purdue University.
Many thanks to music theorist Helen Brown at Purdue University for her help in guiding my musicology reading for this essay:
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.
Cone, Edward T. Musical Form and Musical Performance. New York: Norton, 1968.
Eliot, T S. The Complete Poems and Prose of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.
Freud, Sigmund. Collected Papers. Vol. 2. Translated by Joan Riviere. London: Hogarth Press, 1949.
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. New York: Random House, 1979.
Gross, Harvey. Sound and Form in Modem Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.
Jarrell, Randall. The Third Book of Criticism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Repetition. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Kivy, Peter. The Fine Art of Repetition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Lohurt, Heinz, and Siegmund Levarie. "On the Enjoyment of Listening to Music," Psychoanalytic Explorations in Music. Edited by Stuart Feder et al. Madison, Wis.: International Universities Press, 1990.
Larkin, Phillip, Collected Poems. London: Noonday Press, 1989.
Levis, Larry. Elegy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Stein, Gertrude. Lectures in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
Stevens, Wallace. The Letters of Wallace Stevens. Edited by Holly Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Viking, 1959.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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