Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Laurel has asked for some clarification around the whole Abstract-Change-Pleasure formula that I lifted from Wallace Stevens' poem "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (you can read a version of it with some typos here). Now I was being very casual, not to say cavalier, with Stevens' rather vague terminology yesterday, but I'll see if I can unlock their meanings now so as to apply them with a little more precision.

Stevens' poem is long, often abstract, and more than a little portentous: in short, it's a doozy, and I can't claim to understand it fully. It was written in 1942 as was his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," one of his fuller explanations of the relationship between what he called "reality" and "the imagination." The timing is important: one of our most abstract major poets and a serious aesthete is trying to define poetry and its role in a time of war, a war that in 1942 it was far from certain that we would win. For Stevens, poetry as an act of the imagination is a response to the pressure of reality, and not at all in an escapist sense. As he writes, "By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events ont he consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation." An act of the imagination makes it possible to see reality and to have a critical relation to it rather than being wholly caught up in and of it. So far so good. What about this "abstract" business? Well, the poem puts it more beautifully:
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
In the essay he imagines "the figure of a poet, a possible poet" (what in the poem I think he calls "major man") who "must have lived all of the last two thousand years, and longer," and writes that "although he has himself witnessed, during the long period of his life, a general transition to reality"—that is, the death of myth and the rise of reason (one is tempted to say, the dialectic of enlightenment which as Adorno and Horkheimer saw has itself become a myth) for him, "his own measure as a poet, in spite of all the passions of all the lovers of the truth, is the measure of his power to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers of truth insist. He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination." So I take "It Must Be Abstract" to refer to a poem's ability to reframe the world (which includes the poet and her consciousness): to select details and play with them, creating new arrangements that might offer insight into the way they are actually arranged. Stevens uses the analogy of looking at a motionless object: it is your mind, your power of abstraction, that makes a chair seen from behind recognizable as the same chair we saw from above or the front. Abstraction is the mode of the imagination in which a relation with reality is established, and I recognize the degree of a poem's abstraction by the balance it strikes between the pressure of reality—that is, the pressure to see and narrate reality "realistically"—and the disarrangement of reality required to make visible what's really real: the forces or structures or motives or delusions that arrange the picture we get from politicians or our parents or TV or gossip or advertising. If I say that Jennifer Moxley is more abstract than Kevin Davies, I mean that the materials of the world are presented as being more alienated from the common world-picture in her poems than they are in Davies'. This has something to do with how she thematizes her own consciousness and maybe more to do with her peculiar, thorny syntax and diction. Davies' version of abstraction is that tried-and-true modernist technique of collage and fragmentation: he skips merrily from node to node so that we perceive the power of his imagination in the spontaneous association of elements which together give a picture of both the world and his attitudes toward it. "A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." The differing picture, the other relationship to a consuming reality, from which one might have the perspective and space in which to imagine something different, is in the words.

"It Must Change." I think this is something akin to logopoeia: the play of and in language as language, "the dance of the intellect among words." Part of the problem with the way we're taught to read, I think, is that we put so much emphasis on similarity: the emphasis in most of the Shakespeare classes I've taken in my life has been on assimilating him, on praising him for his "universality." You're always hearing stories about inner-city kids being taught to relate to Romeo and Juliet through the trope of gang violence, or what have you. But this kind of reading loses difference: we lose sight of the blindingly obvious fact that Shakespeare's language is not ours. The kid who says, "I don't get this; this is strange" is in a sense a better reader than someone who's been educated to "relate" to the characters and plot. Poetry demands the reading of this fundamental difference: a shuttling back and forth between language-as-presence (which causes representation to fade) and what the language presents (which causes the words themselves to fade). The quality of change in a poem is that by which it promotes this movement:

The poem goes from the poet's gibberish to
The gibberish of the vulgate and back again.
Does it move to and fro or is it of both

At once? Is it a luminous flittering
Or the concentration of a cloudy day?
Is there a poem that never reaches words

And one that chaffers the time away?
Change is freshness: "The freshness of transformation is / The freshness of a world." Kevin Davies' poems constantly draw attention to their language as language and then shift your attention back to the objects, emotions, or pieces of rhetoric that stick to them like barnacles. Moxley, I think, is a little more interested in the presentation of state-of-mind, but as that state is constantly shifting she incorporates a lot of change as well.

"It Must Give Pleasure." It's tempting to complete the analogy-trilogy and assign this faculty to melopoeia—musicality—just as I've called "change" logopoeia and implied that abstraction is presentation of image or phanopoeia. But actually this is pleasure from a more philosophical standpoint, the pleasure of "later reason": the contemplation of reality that the poem has carved out a space for, which turns reality into an object of aesthetic pleasure:
But the difficultest rigor is forthwith,
On the image of what we see, to catch from that

Irrational moment its unreasoning,
As when the sun comes rising, when the sea
Clears deeply, when the moon hangs on the wall

Of heaven-haven. These are not things transformed.
Yet we are shaken by them as if they were.
We reason about them with a later reason.
This is all Heideggerian as hell: poetry discloses objects in their being and reveals too how Being gets concealed by ordinary, instrumental perception. Put simply, the pleasure of poetry is that of discovering order in apparent chaos:
            But to impose is not
to discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,

To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,

Seeming, at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,

The fiction of an absolute— Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.
That's the famous necessary Angel, there, as terrifying in his willed presence as Rilke's angels are in their overpowering reality. For me, the Angel represents whatever value the poet brings transcendent to the poem's materials. The pleasure of the poem, which exactly corresponds to its usefulness ("[The poet's] role, in short, is to help people live their lives"), derives from some principle, some value the poet brings or discovers through language to the world. For many poets the principle behind pleasure is difficult to discover because the poet actively submerges it in their materials: the reputed difficulty of Ashbery depends on the fact that his Angel is a chameleon who never offers a stable viewpoint between phrase and phrase. "It Must Be Abstract" refers to representation; "It Must Change" refers to language; "It Must Give Pleasure" is the direction, edge, or spin of the poem as a whole. I give "Pleasure" some priority in Davies because of his Marxism (too limiting a category but it will have to do): the value of greater equality and justice is the hinge on which he cracks open that space in reality that we are invited to play in. Moxley's presentation of social reality is complex in a different way and much harder on the self, or at any rate on the rhetorical situation of the speaker. She's a passionate ethicist, whereas Davies with his caricatures strikes me as more of a moralist, almost a pomo poetic Dickens. I do take pleasure in the conventional sense from Moxley, but it's not so much on the surface; again, this may have to do with formal differences. Davies is a poet of fragments, mostly, and I enjoy the paratactic relations of them. Moxley is a poet of the sentence and it takes more work to discover her, though the rewards are potentially richer.

Phew! After all that my introduction of Grood Poet 3 may have to wait another day.

1 comment:

Matt Scofield said...

There are no typos in the poem.

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