Thursday, November 29, 2007

Viral Poetry Particles

Poetry is viral. It is highly infective, invisible to the naked eye or common microscope, and self-replicating. Deep inside the poetry envelope, an ordered and immensely intricate informational architecture directs the maintenance and operation of the poetry organism.

Recently, researchers at the Yale Literary Research Laboratory (YLRL), in New Haven, have successfully isolated and sequenced the first authentic poetry viral genome. The poetry particles were originally isolated from the blood of an undergraduate student who became infected with a rare disorder after reading too much Shakespeare in a survey level poetry class. Iva Hedachia, a 22 year-old English major, became ill during an exam and was later found by a friend in the bathroom reciting the Preamble to the Constitution in iambic pentameter. She was rushed to the ER and was initially screened by an EMT specialist, who, fortuitously, happened to be the wife of a scientist at the YLRL. The technician phoned her husband, Dr. Seymour Smalley, who rushed over and was able to take a sample of the blood back with him to his lab.

Smalley and his colleagues were successful in isolating the first genes in the so-called “poetry allele.” Using a PCR amplification process, the researchers produced enough viral-encoded message to map out the mysteries of the poetry genome. What they found was as startling as it was beautiful.

In a paper in this month’s Nature Genetics Journal, Smalley et. al. report that certain informational quanta can spontaneously arise in the brains of especially astute and passionate literary majors. These high-energy bundles of genetic material, dubbed “Poetry Virome Catalysts (PVC’s),” can lie dormant for months and suddenly become activated by a single extrinsic event or emotional stimulus.

Smalley, in his groundbreaking paper entitled, “Poetry Viromes and Shakespeare,” suggests that these hotspots of genetic coding are formed somewhere in the amygdala, a center deep within the brain which communicates with the hypothalamus and is responsible for controlling levels of the emotional response. Smalley and his coworkers discovered that Ms. Hedachia had gone far overboard with her reading of Shakespeare. In fact, she stayed up for three straight days (an 82 hour period without sleep) reading through most of the Tragedies and all the Shakespearean Sonnets, memorizing most of the latter to perfection. Her boyfriend caught her on the roof of her eight-story dormitory, with a lavish table set with fine bone china, polished silver, and a complete gourmet meal for two. It wasn’t until the researchers completely explained the syndrome in detail to the boyfriend that he realized the full import of the nametag set for William S.

Smalley has been literally inundated by the media. However, as a caveat to the research conducted at the YLRL, it should be stressed that these PVC’s have not, as yet, shown themselves to be long-lived. Fortunately, the pathological effects of PVC infection and propagation are quite innocuous. It turns out, most people have high levels of “poetry blockers” that quickly attach to the PVC molecules and inactivate them before too much cognitive damage can occur. Moreover, and quite interestingly, complete amnesia seems to accompany most PVC infections observed by the researchers.

Smalley and his team of molecular biologists are currently working on a unified theory of pathogenesis that they say will revolutionize our understanding of how we process the emotional input from reading poetry. The work, in his words, “will ultimately explain why so many of us cannot understand or appreciate anything about poetry, be it modern or classical.” In fact, both Roche and Bayer Pharmaceuticals are interested in developing small molecule “unblockers” that can be taken, for example, just prior to a reading of, say, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even T.S. Elliot’s, The Wasteland. Moreover, an executive for Roche commented, with exhilaration, that the market alone for English majors could be in the hundreds of millions (US dollars).

Monday, November 26, 2007

New Poem in Atlanta Review

My poem, "The Wrong Poem" has just appeared in the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of the Atlanta Review. This is a paper only journal, but please click here to check out their webpage: The Atlanta Review

I'm really proud to appear alongside some great poets, including Ted Kooser (two-time US Poet Laureate), Louis Simpson (received Pulitzer Prize for poetry), Albert Goldbarth (National Books Critics Circle Award), Ann Lauterbach, Brighde Mullins and many other luminaries in the poet world.

Poems on Poems

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves.
Memory by memory the mind--

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

-Excerpt from Ars Poetica, , 1926, by Archibald MacLeish

There is a fascinating body of poetry that looks inward into its own craft and asks the unanswerable question, what is poetry? These poems, perhaps self-conscious, often purposefully pretentious, and certainly noticeable in their peculiar form and voice, have much to teach us about what makes a poem a poem. What are the distinctions? What are the qualities in a poem that leave us breathless, caught up in the transport of an image away from our accustomed vantage and reference points, that lead us into new, unfamiliar territory?

Many great poets have written poems on poems. I’ve taken a look around and chosen some examples that I think will interest you. As well, I offer one of my own to chew on. Hopefully, this will inspire you to think about your craft, not only in writing poems, but prose as well.

Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” In looking at what poets have said about poetry in their poems, a striking number have dealt with the effect of words on an individual’s feelings and the resultant impact on all of the senses. It is true, I think, that poetry accentuates the moment in its form, by nature given to brevity (when compared to prose). Perhaps it is this punctuation of the moment that arms the poem to eventually fire rockets into our emotional being.

A poem can shoot off a receptor in the brain with two well-placed words; and, at least with me- I rarely see it coming. This unanticipated dart to the soul is what I love about poetry. Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), a wonderful poet out of the New York School, put it this way:

My Heart, by Frank O'Hara

I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says "That's
not like Frank!", all to the good! I
don't wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart--
you can't plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.


Robert Frost said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat." Often, this kind of response can come from the majesty and sound of words linked artfully together by a master poet. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote a superb poem on the effect of the spoken word in poetry on the senses, entitled, Sound and Sense, which begins:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense...

The sense of sound in poetry is paramount. When all else fails, it is often the pure sound of a great poem that grabs us and prompts our emotions. This lyrical quality is something poetry can claim as a distinctive. Not all poems, obviously. But I’ve often sat in front of a poem trying to figure out what it was that I liked so much about it, and then finally realized it was simply the beauty of the words put together in a magical way.

What about the obtuseness found in some poetry? How many of us have thrown up our hands (versus our lunch) and remarked, what in the world is this poem talking about? Have you read any Wallace Stevens lately? Or what about T.S. Elliott? If so, then try some excerpts from the following two compelling poems on for size and tell me if you feel any better.

Introduction to Poetry (excerpt), by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive...

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

My Poems, by Robert Currie.

My poems
are slim bombs
craving explosion
Their fuses lie
dark on the page
awaiting your arrival with a light.

Appears in a text book, Literary Experiences, Vol. I by Oster, Iveson and McClay (in the section entitled "To the Student")

So what is poetry? I imagine there are as many answers to that question as there are readers. However, in examining poems written by well-known poets on what comprises the essence of their craft, I’ve been happily surprised by what I’ve encountered. A striking poem on this topic comes from Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who saw and felt his way through poetry, in the delineation of the imagery of ideas and the effects of those ideas on the senses. Stevens said of modern poetry, “…[it is] the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” His sardonically honest poem, “Poetry is a Destructive Force,” brilliantly captures one quality of poetry that is incontrovertible: its potential influence and power over the reader.

Poetry is a Destructive Force

-by Wallace Stevens

That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.

It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast
Its muscles are his own...

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972), was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet who was influential in the early writing careers of many young poets who went on to become great American poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and James Merrill.. The following poem is astounding in its clarity and understanding of the nature and distinctive qualities in poetry that make it interesting and appealing. I highly recommend reading it a number of times.

Poetry, by Marianne Moore

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers
that there is in it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a high
sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat,holding on upside down
or in quest of something to eat, elephants pushing,
a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree,
the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a flea, the base-ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid to discriminate against "business documents and
schoolbooks"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not pretty,nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of the imagination"--above insolence
and triviality and can present for inspection, imaginary gardens
with real toads in them, shall we have it.
In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
the raw material of poetry in all its rawness
and that which is on the other hand genuine,
then you are interested in poetry.

Here's one by a lesser known poet:

How to Write a Poem, by Edward Nudelman

First, arise very early in the morning. Brush your teeth
and floss (if you forgot last night). No wait. First drink
a cup of dark black coffee on a couch, alone, while you
gaze out the window and watch the school kids march
solemnly to St. Catherine’s. Strike that. Better to first
open the window, then you may catch that beautiful
mockingbird song (or, if not there, imagine that you hear
a mockingbird). If today is a warm August morning,
(which it is not, for me) you may be able to pick up the
pungent orange blossom which can coat your tongue with
enough perfume to literally exclude the need to brush
your teeth (this is a lie). If no birds are singing, try to find
the sound of rustling wind. And don’t forget, if the school
kids are walking by, you may be able to see them slowly
proceeding in single file (if your sidewalk is very narrow).
When you see them, quickly close your eyes and remember,
these are the moments of your life. Now, it’s probably past
your cutoff point, so quickly go upstairs and brush your
teeth (if no orange blossom). Steel yourself for the day.
Remember that Susan has been going through hell with the
loss of your dog (as have you, but that pertains to other
poems); see if you can think of something nice to say to her
that might comfort her, give her solace, or prepare her for
what looks like a pretty difficult day. (Note that these
notions are platitudes, but milk them for all they’re worth).
Hold Susan, and say, “I’ll come home for lunch today, if I
possibly can,” knowing that you certainly cannot. Strike that.
Simply say, “I love you dear.” Then kiss her on the very
top of her nose. Drive to work, trying to find a song that
you can cling to. Work. Look for that meager scrap of
paper in the pile in front of you that will free you from the
dread of all the other pieces of paper in front of you. Eat
lunch in your meeting. On the way home, take the car to
the dealers for the umpteenth time in the last month. Yell
nicely at the clueless manager. Hold that thought. Just
threaten him with a lawsuit. That always works. Drive
home in the rental car. Give Susan the flowers you forgot
to buy. Greet the dog you no longer have. Sit back on
your couch, where earlier you couldn’t hear the mockingbird,
and remember, as best you can, what that sound did for you
last summer, when everything else was just wind and scent
and moments piling on top of themselves. Like school
children in a straight line. Now write the bloody poem.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Pre-Raphaelite Germ

In the mid-1800's a group of artists and poets, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) with their initial publication, The Germ. The groundbreaking periodical only survived for four spectacular issues between January and April of 1850. However, its influence on the art and literary community in England as well as the Continent was striking. This seminal vehicle for a new interpretation and expression of art in literature and the applied-arts displayed the poetry of William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, and Christina Rossetti, as well as essays by Ford Madox Brown, Coventry Patmore, and others.

The periodical, subtitled, Thoughts Towards Nature in Art and Literature, was an attempt to marry art, in the form of book illustration, and poetry. William Michael Rossetti, in an introduction to a 1901 facsimile edition put it this way:

…it was [The Germ] intended to enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry, and consequently regardless whether emanating from practical Artists, or from those who have studied nature in the Artist's School.

W.M. Rossetti, further explained that the depiction of nature in and through art was to be their “paramount storehouse of materials for objects to be represented.” The artists and poets of the PRB studied nature, the representation of it in ideas, and the delineation of nature as seen through allegories and symbols.

Woodcut illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the renowned 1896 edition of Chaucer's Tales. Burne-Jones, though not an "official" member of the PRB, was one of many artists of the period who associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and illustrated the books and poetry of the PRB. Burne-Jones contributed hundreds of woodcut illustrations in this tour-de-force. First editions of the work sell for over $100,000 on the auction block.

PRB artists and poets wanted to free themselves from the restrictions and mechanizations of the incipient Industrial Revolution as well as norms in art that became part of the institutionalized and commercialized "industry" of art. Their poetry was filled with rich imagery and symbolism. Rarely did a poem provide a contemporary context or a narrator, but rather aimed to address universal ideas, images and feelings. The Pre-Raphaelites drew heavily on the lore of mythology and the historical-literary archive of such classics as King Arthur, Norse and Greek Legends, Medieval culture, as well as romantic characters and poems in literature (Ophelia, Persephone, Eve of St. Agnes) They painted vividly colored pastoral and metaphorical paintings often illustrating a classical poem or legend. The Pre-Raphaelite poets formed their own distinctive voice, calling for a return to a more simplistic, contemplative life.

Probably Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most famous book illlustration, “The Maids of Elfin-mere,” is a hauntingly beautiful etching of three young women with their arms outstretched. It appeared in the 1855 edition of The Music Master by William Allingham. DGR was very upset with the woodcut when he saw the first proofs, feeling it had inadequately expressed his line. He only begrudgingly let it be published. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites pursued the non-lucrative avenue of producing woodcut illustrations for the poetry books of the period. Most prolific of those artists were the celebrated William Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, both founding members of the PRB. As well, these two, along with D.G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones avidly painted full-size oils with vivid colors and graphic representation. The best known and acclaimed of all the poets in the group was indisputably Dante Rossetti. His poems are often very long and heady, but a careful reading will review a genius in his verse. Here is a shorter poem which uncommonly (for DGR) speaks of peace in his world of torment, high stress, and eventual drug addiction.

Lost on Both Sides, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As when two men have loved a woman well,
Each hating each, through Love's and Death's deceit;
Since not for either this stark marriage-sheet
And the long pauses of this wedding bell;
Yet o'er her grave the night and day dispel
At last their feud forlorn, with cold and heat;
Nor other than dear friends to death may fleet
The two lives left that most of her can tell:
So separate hopes, which in a soul had wooed
The one same Peace, strove with each other long,
And Peace before their faces perished since:
So through that soul, in restless brotherhood,
They roam together now, and wind among
Its bye-streets, knocking at the dusty inns.

Christina Rossetti, Dante's and William's sister, was an extremely gifted poet. Unlike the long, enigmatic and cerebral poems of Dante, Christina's voice was soft, sensitive, and full of the pathos and conflict that she experienced in her close association with the PRB. CR had a very vibrant faith in God which came out in her poetry in a marvelous free and moving counterpoint, unlike some of the more overtly "religious" poetry of the period. The following poem, entitled Aloof, is a masterpiece of poetic ambivalence with a strong assertive current of honesty saturating every line:

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me:--
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof, bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? What hand thy hand?
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seem'd not so far to seek,
And all the world and I seem'd much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong, and life itself not weak.

The opening number of The Germ begins with a stunning, lengthy poem by Thomas Woolner, one of the four founding members of the PRB. It is illustrated with a stunning woodcut etching by William Holman Hunt, another founding member. It is a split illustration, with the upper panel showing a lady picking flowers near a river with her lover pulling her back. The lower panel shows the lover collapsed on his lover's grave, with a procession of nuns passing behind him. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:

My Beautiful Lady, by Thomas Woolner (first two stanzas)

I love my lady; she is very fair;
Her brow is white, and bound by simple hair;
Her spirit sits aloof, and high,
Altho' it looks thro' her soft eye
Sweetly and tenderly.

As a young forest, when the wind drives thro',
My life is stirred when she breaks on my view.
Altho' her beauty has such power,
Her soul is like the simple flower
Trembling beneath a shower.

It’s difficult to place The Pre-Raphaelites in the order and scale of art movements throughout history. Some decry their idealized representation of the human figure as evidenced in many of Rossetti’s over-romanticized paintings. Others have criticized their narrow and focused view. Most, however, agree that these kinds of narrow assessments sadly misrepresent the effect and value of their art. It was, first and foremost, a reactionary, if not revolutionary movement by a few very gifted artists who wanted to exercise their individuality in an area where that kind of action was vehemently opposed by the institutions in place. Putting it simply, William Rossetti captured the early motives of the founders in this way:

The Preraphaelite Brotherhood entertained a deep respect and a sincere affection for the works of some of the artists who had preceded Raphael; and they thought that they should more or less be following the lead of those artists if they themselves were to develop their own individuality, disregarding school-rules. This was the sum and substance of their “Preraphaelitism."

One of 38 full-color illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for The Flower Book, London, 1905

Monday, November 12, 2007

Four New Poems Just Published

Ampersand Poetry Journal just published four of my poems in their Autumn edition. Please follow this link to view them at the journal. (click here) Ampersand Poetry Journal

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Jar in Tennessee

After reading the first poem I ever read by Wallace Stevens, a strange thing happened. For several months afterward, whenever I heard the word “jar” or “Tennessee,” I would think of this poem. In fact, it still happens on occasion. This is an interesting phenomenon often characteristic of great poetry which is capable of eliciting an instant feeling or recollection by just the hearing of a word or phrase. The poem, entitled, "Anecdote of the Jar", appears simple on a first reading, but has so much to offer on various planes of thought.

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around; no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

(originally appeared in the 1919 issue of Poetry Magazine and later was published in his Collected Poems, copyright 1923, 1951, 1954, by Wallace Stevens.)

The poem has its roots in John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. On one level, Anecdote is a commentary and comparison of Stevens’ own roots, a kind of critique of the poet’s homeland identification versus what one might have found in England, historically speaking. John Keats, as sort of figurehead for quintessential british Romantic poetry, had his London and the high society art-critic world, the sonnet, strict meter, etc. Contrastingly, the American contemporary poet (at the time Stevens wrote the poem) had Tennessee (a slovenly wilderness), a model for a much different art and cultural milieu. From a strictly historical perspective, this might be considered a slightly hyperbolic statement. However, Stevens is trying to convey a feeling. The poem seems to have purposeful “weakness” in rhythm (note the awkward flow in v3), as well as an unorthodox meter (the poem starts out with flawless iambic tetrameter, then has only two beats in v4 and variations after that). Add to this the striking contrast of a polished poem like Keats’s Urn compared to a poem about a jar in rural Tennessee, of all places. Helen Vendler, in her excellent book on Stevens, Words Chosen out of Desire, (I highly recommend reading this book) puts it this way:

"The American poet cannot, Stevens implies, adopt Keats’s serenely purposive use of matching stanzas drawn from sonnet practice. Stevens was entirely capable, as we know from Sunday Morning, of writing memorable Keatsian lines and stanzas; so we must read the Anecdote of the Jar as a palinode—a vow to stop imitating Keats and seek a native American language that will not take the wild out of the wilderness. The humor of the ridiculous stanzas and the equally ridiculous scenario of the Anecdote does not eliminate an awkward sublimity in the jar; or does it eliminate the rueful pathos of the closing lines."

Note how the poem speaks on so many different levels. You can imagine yourself being the jar. You find yourself on a hill surrounded by the great outdoors. Suddenly, the wilderness rises up, transforms. Something opens up for you, this little glass jar of self is now surrounded by an entire dominion. (As an aside, a friend of Stevens has said that the word “dominion” was intended by the poet as a double entendre for the famous “Dominion Wide Mouth Jar.” )

The indication of the jar being placed in the Tennessee wilderness refers to the complexity of human feeling in the natural world. A wild wilderness rises up. The jar is fixed, gray and bare. And what becomes of it? “It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee.” The all important “it” must refer to the jar, and the insinuation is, that even in the throes of compelling and perhaps unavoidable natural events (hurricanes, cancer, even car accidents), still we can find a way to rise above and overcome what appears to be alien and unalterable circumstances. To “not give…” but continue to strive and be "a jar upon the ground."

Wallace Stevens (1879-1959) published his first series of poems in 1914 in Poetry Magazine at the age of 35. He published his first book of poems a full nine years later. Hart Crane, the famous contemporary poet of the period, said of Stevens, “There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." Indeed, Stevens was widely acknowledged in the 1940’s as one of the greatest American living poets of the period. His work became even more popular after his death, in 1955, and he is currently widely appreciated as one of America’s premier "poet of ideas" in the modern era. His poetry deals with themes of imagination, consciousness, the pathos of life, and the dynamic forces and influences of the mind. Stevens, through his poetry, has put together a sensual and imaginative worldview that is ultimately concerned with finding meaning and order in the universe.

Nowhere are these themes more apparent than in the late (chronologically) and fascinating poem, "Local Objects", where the poet reveals the depths of his own loneliness and inadequacies along with a longing for solace and ultimate meaning. Stevens was a man that never settled down, both emotionally and geographically. He had an early falling out with his father who disapproved of his marriage; they never spoke one word to each other after the quarrel. His marriage was unhappy and failed. In his poetry, he often speaks of resignation in referring to his shattered and lonely life. In "Local Objects", we see in the very first line a remarkable use of an abstract and uncommon word, “foyer." This is a word which Stevens masterfully uses to connote a space or locality where things ought to be peacefully and harmonically situated. But for Stevens, they never were. The poem spins an intriguing web of cognitive imagination around this one word.

Local Objects

He knew that he was a spirit without a foyer
And that, in his knowledge, local objects become
More precious than the most precious objects of home:

The local objects of a world without a foyer,
Without a remembered past, a present past,
Or a present future, hoped for in present hope,

Objects not present as a matter of course
On the dark side of the heavens or the bright,
In that sphere with so few objects of its own.

Little existed for him but the few things
For which a fresh name always occurred, as if
He wanted to make them, keep them from perishing,

The few things, the objects of insight, the integrations
Of feeling, the things that came of their own accord,
Because he desired without knowing quite what,

That were the moments of the classic, the beautiful.
These were that serene he had always been approaching
As toward an absolute foyer beyond romance.

Can you feel the sense of loneliness and longing? Can you sense a deep desire to have this foyer filled with beautiful, meaningful objects? The poem is wholly autobiographical and deals with objects as if they were not only things, but moments, snapshots of experience. Vendler describes this unusual transformation in terms of turning a spatial object into a temporal event: “it is for Stevens the axis on which his poetry turns. The world presented itself to him in visual terms; and yet poetry turned the visual object into the temporal integration, into that musical score for experience that we call a poem.”

Even though the poem has a somber tone, it is also clear Stevens takes delight in his poem. He is saying that these local objects are to be desired and understood. Perhaps not fully attainable, especially for him, but desired and appreciated. A foyer must be filled with spirit, with a past, a present and a future, with signs of our having visited and spent time there, even if only in the mind's eye.

So, what kind of objects is Stevens talking about in "Local Objects?" He doesn’t offer specific examples, but one might imagine rivers, trees, farmhouses, an attic, a rope swing, a local pub, a path, a hill. “Moments of the classic, the beautiful.” Stevens is talking about how important these objects become, especially for a man who had no “remembered past,” who was a “spirit without a foyer.” The poem speaks of the desire to find peaceful points of rest and identification. “These were that serene he [i.e. Wallace] had always been approaching as toward an absolute foyer beyond romance.” .

To read more of Wallace Stevens poems, click here
To read more about Wallace Stevens’ life, and what other colleague said about him, click here
To order (Amazon) a wonderful book about Stevens’ poetry, explicating many poems and discussing his ideas, click here:
Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, by Helen Vendler, 1984, University of Tennessee Press

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Power of Poetry: Richard Rorty's Story

Richard Rorty (1931-2007), one of the more prominent and often controversial philosophers of our time, died this summer. His last months were spent battling painful and inoperable pancreatic cancer. Poetry Magazine occasionally has a feature ("The View From Here") where they present people from diverse backgrounds who tell how poetry has impacted their lives on a deeply personal level. The contributors are often celebrated authors, philosophers, artists, scientists and the like, but usually individuals with no real formal training or experience in writing poetry. In a recent issue, only months before he passed away, Rorty provided an installment which I found as shocking as it was revealing of the true nature and power of poetry on many different levels.

In his essay for Poetry’s feature (Nov., 2007), entitled “The Fire of Life,” Rorty begins by explaining what he was trying to convey in his paper, “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” where reason is described as being subservient to words. Without words, you can’t reason, Rorty submitted. While the poet tries to give us a richer language, a philosopher tries to convey real things using non-linguistic tools. In his article for Poetry, Rorty was reflecting on the rigorous nature of his arguments, and continued by stressing that at that time he was not particularly interested in the differences between prose and verse.

Writing, however, on his literal death-bed, Rorty goes on to make some startling realizations as he began to consider the value of poetry in his life-experience. Interestingly, though he had an extensive and renown writing career, and his father (James Rorty) was an accomplished poet and writer, Rorty the son, wrote little if any poetry. He did, however, read poetry.

While having coffee with his elder son and a cousin, he relates, Rorty responded to a question his cousin asked concerning what his thoughts have lately turned to, now that he was facing the end of his life. Rorty replied:

"Neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation…. Neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point."

His son prodded him. “Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” Rorty’s response was swift: “Poetry!” He quoted two passages in the Poetry essay, one from Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine,” and the other from Walter Savage Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday.” The latter I found provocative:

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The power of verse, for Rorty, was not readily identifiable, although he was quick to maintain that he doubted the same effect could have ever been afforded by prose, and added:

"I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers…In lines such as these [rhyme, rhythm and imagery] conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of impact, that only verse can achieve."

These are telling words from a very learned man who spent his life in the hallowed (and sometimes stuffy) University halls, offices and auditoriums, and a renowned philosopher who wrote seminal treatises on moral philosophy and the rigors of philosophical inquiry. Here, at the very end of his life, he is melted before the power of three bare lines of poetry. In a poignant conclusion, Rorty makes a revealing confession, of sorts, which to me conveys the power and sway that poetry can have on the human mind and heart. He says:

"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. Rather, it is because I would lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts, just as I would have if I had made more close friends. "