On meaning in Ashbery

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Lithuanian Dance Band

Nathan the Wise is a good title it’s a reintroduction
Of heavy seeds attached by toggle switch to long loops leading
Out of literature and life into worldly chaos in which
We struggle two souls out of work for it’s a long way back to
The summation meanwhile we live in it gradually getting used to
Everything and this overrides living and is superimposed on it
As when a wounded jackal is tied to the waterhole the lion does come

I write you to air these few thoughts feelings you are
Most likely driving around the city in your little car
Breathing in the exquisite air of the city and the exhaust fumes dust and other
Which make it up only hold on awhile there will be time
For other decisions but now I want to concentrate on this
Image of you secure and projected how I imagine you
Because you are this way where are you you are in my thoughts

Something in me was damaged I don’t know how or by what
Today is suddenly broad and a whole era of uncertainties is ending
Like World War I or the twenties it keeps ending this is the beginning
Of music afterward and refreshments all kinds of simple delicacies
That toast the heart and create a rival ambiance of cordiality
To the formal one we are keeping up in our hearts the same

What with skyscrapers and dirigibles and balloons the sky seems pretty crowded
And a nice place to live at least I think so do you
And the songs strike up there are chorales everywhere so pretty it’s lovely
And everywhere the truth rushes in to fill the gaps left by
Its sudden demise so that a fairly accurate record of its activity is possible
If there were sex in friendship this would be the place to have it right here on this floor
With bells ringing and the loud music pealing

Perhaps another day one will want to review all this
For today it looks compressed like lines packed together
In one of those pictures you reflect with a polished tube
To get the full effect and this is possible
I feel it in the lean reaches of the weather and the wind
That sweeps articulately down these drab streets
Bringing everything to a high gloss

Yet we are alone too and that’s sad isn’t it
Yet you are meant to be alone at least part of the time
You must be in order to work and yet it always seems so unnatural
As though seeing people were intrinsic to life which it just might be
And then somehow the loneliness is more real and more human
You know not just the scarecrow but the whole landscape
And the crows peacefully pecking where the harrow has passed

John Ashbery

***

A lovely breeze was caressing my face as I sat on a bench at the entrance of Oval Maidan. It was that hour when the sky keeps changing its colour like a chameleon which doesn’t know what it’s stuck to until night is pinned on it with assurance by the stars. On the pathway that leads from one entrance of the park to the other, a woman was seated with both her legs tucked under her, making two inverted Vs. Next to her were her chappals and a thick plastic bag. Mutely, she performed gestures, accompanied with expressions: these were brief, ranged widely in emotion and were conveyed with utmost clarity. With her palm flat and horizontal, she cut the air in three places, at increasing heights, like steps; her round, expressive eyes lit up her face. Then there were tenser gestures—palm of one hand gripping and pulling the wrist of the other—which were accompanied by tense expressions like tightening of the face, clenching of teeth inside closed mouth and puffing of breast. She performed these movements and expressions in a varying sequence—with a set of three or four gestures and expressions in different combinations—which seemed to form, on the whole, something similar to an exercise routine. But from the fluidity of her actions it was clear that they were spontaneous. The care she took in performing this mime signaled awareness on her part of her performance, which none of the passersby, striding towards the station, paid much attention to, beyond a glance and quick judgment. Was there a story here? Even if there wasn’t, something had to be told in the best possible way (why else would her movements be so clear?). But for whom was this telling meant? I thought she would be found at the same spot again, tomorrow or day after, or at some other place in the city, performing those same gestures and expressions once more, before moving on to yet another spot. But the composure with which she got up, put on her chappals, picked up her plastic bag and walked out of the park—all vestige of pliability gone from her face—it was hard to believe that that was not her only performance.

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Swifts

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The more narrative and meditative verse of Tomlinson also employs similar strategies of rhyme and enjambment but the lines tend to be longer than four beats. There are poems where movement is still the main concern—Knowledge, Verse and Providence—but it is not conveyed with the immediacy of poems where the lines are short. Short lines can convey the impetus of onward motion because the jump from line to line the eye has to make induces speed in reading more so than in sliding along lines. In Tomlinson, the push of enjambment adds to the momentum, giving many of the observational poems the spontaneity and immediacy of notes taken on the field. Perceptible motion is more often than not conveyed through short lines, allowing finer movements to be contemplated through longer and slower lines. There are many examples one can cite where observable movement chimes with movement of the poem. These are the most lyrical, in the sense of the lyric I have been developing here. Some of them are: One day of autumn, The Leaper, The Blossom and, from his last collection, Swifts, with which I’ll end my discussion on Tomlinson.

 

Swifts

Swifts do not sing:

What they do well

is sleep on the wing

moving always higher and higher

in their almost entirely

aerial existence, alighting

only to nest, lay eggs,

rear their young and then

back to the airways

to teach them there

the art of high-speed darting

with narrow swept-back wings

and streamlined bodies:

when swifts descend

they cannot perch, they cling

by hook-shaped toes

to walls and so crawl

into sheltered cavities, into gaps

in eaves and church towers

where they can nest. Summer visitors

they seem always about to leave

and when they finally do

scream in their hundreds

that the time is now,

that the south awaits,

that he who procrastinates

has only the cold to explore

for those succulent insects

who are no longer there[1].

 

 


[1] NCP, p 684.

The Gossamers

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Tomlinson’s poems not only vividly evoke a world but very often describe our own visible world with an articulacy and precision we associate with science rather than poetry. The relation between the lyric and movement per se, as in Their Voices Rang, becomes more evident in poems that record motion. The poem replicates this motion by modulating between iambic and trochaic feet and maintaining a liveliness and spontaneity through slant rhymes in the middle, end and beginning of a short, 4-beat line. In an interview for The Paris Review magazine, Tomlinson spoke about this kind of line.

“I was embodying Donald Davie’s description of syntax as “articulate energy”—and underscoring it with rhyme and half-rhyme. There is the clarity and constancy of a four-beat line that also records motion and change, and rhyme plays its unexpected part in the reconciliation (frequently to be canceled) of those opposites. But the underlying factor is that of a fluid but lucid line that continually encounters things and then moves on.[1]

There are many poems that can be cited as examples. My choice of The Gossamers is driven by the fact that apart from embodying Tomlinson’s aesthetic of movement, it is also a superb example of how Tomlinson’s idea of perception informs his poetry.

The Gossamers

Autumn. A haze is gold

By definition. This one lit

The thread of gossamers

That webbed across it

Out of shadow and again

Through rocking spaces which the sun

Claimed in the leafage. Now

I saw for what they were

These glitterings in grass, on air,

Of certainties that ride and plot

The currents in their tenuous stride

And, as they flow, must touch

Each blade and, touching, know

Its green resistance. Undefined

The haze of autumn in the mind

Is gold, is glaze[2].

Rhyme, though understated, is crucial to the working of The Gossamers. Note that terminal rhyme is rarer than medial or medial-terminal rhyme. We have ‘lit/it,’ ‘again/sun,’ ‘were/air’ and ‘undefined/mind’ in the first category and ‘autumn/definition,’ ‘thread/webbed,’ ‘which/leafage,’ ‘ride/stride,’ ‘flow/know’ and ‘haze/glaze’ in the second.  The last three pairs, though, must be differentiated, since they are all full, medial-terminal rhymes. Medial rhyme works here as it always does, to quicken the pace of the line, and along with the length of the line is used to control the speed of the poem. Compare, for instance, the choppy beginning (first four lines) and ending (last three lines) of the poem to the relaxed middle (end of line seven to nine), which allows time and breath for the taking in of the realisation without creating loud resonances. End rhyme—which is rare in Tomlinson’s work—here eschewed acquires the meaning of perception being shown as process and not event. The poem suggests the idea that observation does not occur in units of syntax (which leads to enjambment) and seeing is a process: looking at gossamers, or anything for that matter, involves light reflecting from them, reaching our eyes, hitting the retina and triggering nerve impulses that lead to the brain, where they are recognised as gossamers. Similarly, the ‘haze’ outside the mind and the ‘haze’ inside are not simultaneous, and so the end of the line cannot be simultaneous with sound reinforcing sense. The last end rhyme ‘undefined/mind’ becomes a striking exception to this rule. It stands out more definitively than ‘Autumn/definition’ in the assertive beginning or ‘were/air’ in the realisation that occurs in the middle. “The haze of autumn” webbed with gossamers is similar to the mind: it is both seen and seen through, both opaque and transparent, and therefore undefined. The same opaque-transparent quality of the mind means that in the gossamers we see the mind (and the mind is all process) and at the same time we see the gossamers as the mind shows.


[1] Charles Tomlinson, interviewed by Willard Spiegelman, The Art of Poetry No. 78, The Paris Review, 1998.

[2] NCP, pp 99-100.

[3] For my discussion on rhyme, I have used John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook, second edition (Indian), Oxford University Press, 2005.

The lyric in Tomlinson’s poetry

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The possibilities of being is the subject of a wonderfully evocative poem by Charles Tomlinson.

 

Their Voices Rang

Their voices rang

Through the winter trees:

They were speaking and yet it seemed they sang,

The trunks a hall of victory.

 

And what is that and where?

Through we come to it rarely,

The sense of all that we might be

Conjures the place from air.

 

Is it the mind, then?

It is the mind received,

Assumed into a season

Forestial in the absence of all leaves.

 

Their voices rang

Through the winter trees and time

Catching the cadence of that song

Forgot itself in them[1].

 

Perception, or the relation between the mind and the world, is one of the major themes in Tomlinson’s poetry and this poem is representative of his inquires in the subject as it fuses both emotional and intellectual reactions to the physical world in the act of perception. Like many of Tomlinson’s poems, it is also full of vitality, for it chooses to view and show a barren winter landscape as redolent of the possibility of life. The mind-world relation here relies on the dendritic structure of mind (neurons) and trees. It is the mind, which can become “forestial/ in the absence of all leaves,” that has the power to suggest possibilities and evoke them so strongly that they become actualities (to a hallucinatory pitch, as in, “yet it seemed they sang” and “conjures the place from air”) in the realm of thought.

It is interesting to note that the poem does not describe the landscape visually—except the barren “winter trees” and “absence of all leaves” —but aurally: “voices,” “rang,” “speaking,” “sang,” “cadence” and “song.” However, the poem has a distinctly visual element, which is achieved by the suggestive power of the aural vocabulary (we always look for a source or imagine one whenever we hear sounds) and the past continuous tense used in the poem.  What the tense establishes is the fact that a sensibility, a mind, has experienced the possibility of the future in the present (now located in the past). It makes the experience of the future more believable than prophetic statements in the more obvious choice of the future continuous (spring occurs in the future of winter): They will be speaking and yet it shall seem that they are singing. The past continuous also makes the poem a recollection and therefore brings the voices, the song, close to the present of the reading. Being recalled through reading, the song unfolds once more and the reader is placed in its now. This recollection of a past when the unfolding of the future was experienced in the present triggers a more conscious, because vicarious, recollection in the present of the poem’s reading. The visual effect this toggling of time zones creates, in my mind, is that of leaves emerging out of bare branches in time-lapse. And it is this visual effect that I find the most musical or lyrical aspect of Their Voices Rang.


[1] pp 327-328, New Collected Poems, Charles Tomlinson, Carcanet Press Limited, 2009.

The sense of all that we might be

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The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines the lyric as follows:

“In the modern sense, any fairly short poem expressing the personal mood, feeling, or meditation of a single speaker (who may sometimes be an invented character, not the poet).[1]

Apart from being an expression of a mood or feeling which ceases to be personal if the poem works, lyric poems carry a powerful charge of suggestiveness. Their musicality comes from being able to suspend language in a state of non-referentiality, like non-programmatic music, until the existence of a thoroughly new, though innately familiar, system of references dawns on the reader. Every word in the poem then begins to mean something else and is in harmony with this quality of all the other words, which appear together in a form we recognise, almost as in a déjà vu. This recognition occurs because the world evoked by the poem is one like our own, only slightly different. In this world, the words mean differently, their sounds carry an echo of our speech and they are interlinked in a kind of dream-logic.

The possibility of other worlds, where things exist differently than they do in our own, is an idea that has been revisited and revised by many thinkers from the Greek philosophers onwards. In a recent article in PN Review[2], Roger Caldwell provides a succinct historical survey of these theories. The German philosopher Leibniz was the first to fully elaborate the concept of many worlds. He believed that God had chosen our world from infinite possible worlds because it was the best (in terms of moral goodness). Having once actualised it, there was nothing superfluous or random to be found in this world. Everything—the order of words on this page, your pulse as you read these words, the shape of clouds in your sky at this precise moment—is as it is, and cannot be otherwise, because it is an essential part of a world supremely good. For Leibniz, there exists only one world—ours, which was not only possible but made actual by the will of God. Other possible worlds contain all the possibilities which neither did nor will ever get actualised in our world. Some of these are evidently experienced by us during a throw of dice or while reading fiction: we realise that there was a fair amount of chance for getting that double six we wished for instead of the double three we got; and nothing makes it impossible for Sherlock Holmes to have lived at some point at 221B Baker Street. In Leibniz’s world, that double six and Sherlock Holmes do not exist simply because they did not get actualised in this world. They do, however, in the more relative theory of David Lewis, put forth in his book The Plurality of Worlds (1986). Every possibility in our world is an actuality in some world. For Lewis, there is a world in which the double six is as real as the double three in our own and another world where Sherlock Holmes lives, smokes tobacco and solves mysteries just as you and I exist in this one and go about with our lives.

That poems, novels, artworks and music are distinct worlds is an idea developed in Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking (1978). According to Goodman, each artistic world is built on a different set of rules and what is possible in one is not possible in another. However, all artistic worlds are compatible with our world and inhabitable by us, albeit briefly, meaning that we can experience the warm sunshine of our local climate and simultaneously feel the cold drizzle of London into which Holmes steps out. Being able to inhabit the world of fiction in this way, we can realise the existence of possibilities relevant to our lives. And we need this realization from time to time, as Caldwell says in his article:

“Unlike other animals, we see ourselves and others in terms of possibilities – of what might be, and of what might have been. We tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves about possible futures and possible pasts – some of which may be true. [p 21]”

Through the actions and dialogue of characters we are able to reflect on our own actions and words and see how we could have acted or spoken differently in circumstances that have had a bearing on our as well as other people’s lives. We are able to see how we could have behaved differently at these junctures and ended up being someone very different from our present self. The world of novels makes tangible the possibility of change in ourselves that is essential for our survival. Poems, too, show us possible worlds by tapping into the potentialities of words (signifiers) and their interrelations. By presenting new and striking combinations of words, poems create associations in a reader’s mind, thereby creating new ways of feeling and thinking. In showing us that words can mean differently, they help us enlarge and renew our vocabulary of self-description, making it possible for us to see ourselves (and others) differently. And lyric poems, in particular, do this more forcefully, packing the charge of suggestiveness in as few lines as possible and using music to draw us away from a world and a self constructed from the largely fossilised language of daily speech.


[1] Chris Baldick, Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2] Roger Caldwell, “‘The Present King of France is Bald’: On Possible Worlds,” p 20, PN Review 202.

Notes on the Lyric

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The presence of the lyric in contemporary poetry is of considerable interest because it provides new solutions to the question “of how the “lyrist” is possible as an artist.[1]” One of the things the lyrist-as-artist manages to do is to convey intensely personal feelings musically, without making us cringe (the opposite of which happens so often at poetry readings). We can ask how the lyrist manages to do this, and Nietzsche gives a theoretical explanation based on his hypothesis of two art impulses in nature: the Dionysian, which is the mystical feeling of oneness with the world; and the Apollonian, which is the joyful experience of the world as appearance or dream. For Nietzsche, the lyrist (of the Greek tragedies and dithyrambs) is someone in whom both the Dionysian and Apollonian impulses converge. The Dionysian drags him into a dizzying, ecstatic and painful identification with everything in the world—to the extent that the subjective vanishes into “complete self-forgetfulness [p 4]” —while the Apollonian ejects him out of this terrible picture and redeems him with the ability to view it as a dream:

“The artist has already surrendered his subjectivity in the Dionysian process. The picture which now shows him his identity with the heart of the world, is a dream-scene, which embodies the primordial contradiction and primordial pain, together with the primordial joy, of appearance. The “I” of the lyrist therefore sounds from the depth of his being: its “subjectivity,” in the sense of the modern esthetes, is pure imagination. [p 14]”

Never mind the theoretical apparatus, Nietzsche arrives at a simple though startling conclusion: the “I” of lyrical poems is a fiction. And it is startling for precisely this reason: when the artist is most personal, he is not himself.


[1] p 13, The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Dover Publications, 1995.