Pressure Points

Last night, leaning on a stone ram at the Seattle Art Museum, I listened to Richard Kenney read his crown of sonnets, “Gondwana Gone” (am I going to quote it to you? No, since I haven’t gotten my copy of Verse magazine’s second “Sequence” issue of 2009 yet) and thought about materiality.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (I’m moratoriuming him after this post, I swear) claimed that lyric speech is a preserved gesture, a deathless shape whose intensity gives tangibility to feeling. Do you, too, swoon like a teenager to read about his “thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant of an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing”? This assertion, at 170 years old, is radical enough that poets have redefined it every few generations: Ron Silliman on the “torque” of the New Sentence; Charles Olson noting that the poem in its field “must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.”

The paradox (only a paradox because of the limitation/crumbliness of a sculptural metaphor for poetry?) is animated stillness, the way a sculpture you stare at seems almost to walk off the podium, or an optical illusion makes the skin of your hand crawl. Williams, Creeley, Notley, Hopkins:

we searched through
the rooms for

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its


~ ~

They are taking all my letters, and they put them into a fire.
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaI see the flames, etc.
But do not care, etc.
They burn everything I have, or what little
I have. I don’t care, etc.

~ ~

At night the states
I forget them or I wish I was there
aaaaaaaaaain that one under the
Stars. It smells like June in this night
aaaaaaaaaaso sweet like air.
I may have decided that the
aaaaaaaaaaStates are not that tired
Or I have thought so. I have
aaaaaaaaaathought that.

~ ~

“some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

The thunder-purple seabeach plum??d purple-of-thunder“

How’s your head feeling?

The sort of order and cleanliness I prefer in poetry is a product–no less than the roughness and hard seams I prefer–of pressure, fastenings and wrestlings and spasms. At the very least, poem-language fights by its very materiality the thought which motivated it.

So: poetry’s not “pure” anything. To take a second figure from Emerson, the tangibility of language means that a poem showcases a fight between the “materiality” of words/signs and the “idealism” of thought/larger forms. Emerson’s defined an idealist as one who affirms “facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them,” while fessing up elsewhere that “thought only appears in the objects it classifies.”

A poem, then, rough or sanded, documents not an ideal but a dispute with an ideal, or, at the very least, an encrustation of material language around a line of thought. Grow your own!

If you write, do you wish you were a sculptor (or a man with a hammer)? If you sculpt, do you wish you could try words?

Here’s a poem (with editor Tom Paulin’s glosses) by Hugh MacDiarmid, from The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse, titled after the Scots word for “broken rainbow”:

(1: one wet early evening / cold spell after sheep-shearing; 2: rare; 3: shivering; 4: beyond the downpour; 7: smoke / skylark)

The Watergaw

Ae weet forenicht i’ the yow-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi’ its chitterin’ licht
Ayont the on-ding;
An’ I thought o’ the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!

There was nae reek i’ the laverock’s hoose
That nicht ??? an’ nane i’ mine;
But I hae thocht o’ that foolish licht
Ever sin’ syne;
An’ I think mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.