Thursday, February 19, 2009

You Need Syntax to Love

Richard Silberg of POETRY FLASH organized a panel at AWP called "Parallel Lines." It was concerned with the ways in which poets navigate the question of schools or camps. I'm really interested in this question because I dislike the idea of esthetic purity, and I'm always intrigued by what one can find out from poems that aren't like your own. So I thought I'd post here the talk I wrote for the panel, which is largely about my relationship to Brenda Hillman's poetry -- bracingly inventive work that's always an example and a spur.


Here's a passage from a poem in Brenda Hillman's LOOSE SUGAR:

    Early life was a looseness;
    even if your preferred mode is fragment, you need syntax
    to love.

    Still, there is a "leaking" when we try to put things together.

    As a bowl starts out being a bowl, the not-bowlness
drains out of it. Later,

    form is not something we remember doing, like being born.

Many of the poems in this book are interested in the beginnings of life, in where the spark of soul comes from, and in early experiences of sex in which one encounters those sparks again, when "they put/ their summer stars inside you." We were loose before we were formed into ourselves; Lacan talks about the ways in which the infant experiences the body in pieces, a dismembered (and unremembered) self which is only assembled with the coming of language, the notion of a "me." Taking form, becoming the subject of a sentence, Hillman adds, is necessary in order to love; you can't do that except by being bound to other elements. But, something's lost when an identity is found: the self hardens into a form and excludes other things, and taking form becomes transparent to us, a given we can't see, like being born.

But being a poet of multivalence, of a certain kind of "looseness" that lets meanings multiply and resonate next to each other, Hillman also seems to invite us to read this as a passage about poetry itself. Listen again:

    even if your preferred mode is fragment, you need syntax
    to love.

Fragmentation by itself isolates elements, keeps language in suspension like grains of sugar in a bowl. Love gets made -- in the sense of connection, sexual or otherwise -- when one part can act upon another, forming unions, fragments arranging themselves into the sense of sentences. But there's a rub:

    Still, there is a "leaking" when we try to put things together.

    As a bowl starts out being a bowl, the not-bowlness
    drains out of it.

The hazard of making meaning, forming a sentence, is that as you tie the bits of one together, you've left other bits out. A sentence -- like a line -- is a means of organizing disparate elements, and every sentence or line excludes far more than it can include; that's its nature. And pretty soon, that sentence or that line starts to seem a fixed thing, the only way you can mean, when, in fact, as Hillman tells us:


    form is not something we remember doing, like being born.

The form of the language we make, the form of poetry, becomes transparent to us, we may not remember that form is something we do, something we choose again and again -- too easy to tumble into the long sleep of habit.

Brenda Hillman and I became friends in 1969 or 1970, in a creative writing class taught by Mrs. Christensen, at Rincon High School in Tucson, Arizona. Brenda was a year ahead of me. I was intrigued by how smart she was -- she read Russian novels, and had a kind of glamorously vague long-haired boyfriend named Paul, and lived a few blocks away from me. I remember hearing that her family had put up a Christmas tree, and found the unadorned fir so handsome that they put no ornaments on it all, which seemed to me also a kind of glamor, to do something unexpected like that in the name of beauty. I wrote a poem in our class that Brenda loved. I gave her the only copy of it, on purpose; she folded the poem into her wallet and carried it there for many many years. long after we were out of touch and living on opposite coasts.

But I get ahead of my story. Brenda graduated and went off to college in California; I left high school when I couldn't stand it any more and signed up at the University of Arizona, where they didn't find out for a while that I had no high school diploma and didn't seem too worried about it when they did. I went right to the poetry workshops, which I loved. We read a very specific group of poets, who were writing the fashionable poems of the day. They were neo-surrealists, or the later flowering of deep imagists, and they were largely men: Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, and my teacher Richard Shelton. I very much wanted to write in this mode, but it wasn't because I wanted to imitate them, but rather a larger matter than that: I thought that's what poetry was. We did not read, for instance, Robert Lowell, or Mina Loy, to name just two of a great number of poets who'd have thoroughly messed up our parochial vision of the art.

I think it would be unfair of me to blame this narrowness entirely on my teachers. As young poets, we wanted to be where the action was; we sensed a current of energy; we loved the intensity that one felt when the young James Tate appeared on campus and read his dreamy, incendiary poems. We wanted to be part of something, which is probably always a characteristic of young artists.

We -- and here I mean myself and a dozen friends -- lived in a more Balkanized esthetic culture than would quite be possible today. My students have friends in and out of writing programs all over the country; they read blogs and poetry websites; they are very savvy as to the platforms and intentions and principles of all sorts of poetic projects. We were more bound by geography, and by the influence of strong teachers who had built poetry cultures at particular schools. As a result, our reading -- and our poetic practice -- was far less eclectic.

Esthetic purity is like housing/shopping/recreation areas built under the aegis of New Urbanism. I was in one of these in San Mateo the other day; the Whole Foods, the coffee bar, the apartment buildings, even the bridges over the fake canal, everything's sort of Tuscan in aspect, and it's all olive and muddy khaki, it's a completely designed world, and in truth even if it were well designed it would be unbearable, because there's no life-giving clash, no frisson of difference. All orderly equals no fun.


Back to Brenda. Decades later, I am no longer a neo-surrealist and neither is anyone else (though neo-neo-surrealism is on the horizon). I read Brenda's DEATH TRACTATES and I can't get the book out of my head; something about the interiority of that voice, as if one's witness to thinking, the thinking happening in the language as it unfolds. This is hard to talk about: what I mean is something like that the thinking doesn't seem to happen outside the poem, or before it; it's not like the thinking is represented but rather like it's happening, right now, in the language, on the page. I love this. I love how alive it feels. I love that there's a poem which represents the sounds of birds by a chain of commas, just , , , ,

I see Brenda for the first time in, well, thirty years. She tells me about that little scrap of poem that she carried around with her till it fell apart, and how the voice in that poem, something about the sound of it, was useful to her in DEATH TRACTATES -- it seemed to suggest a kind of mode of speaking.


No one would mistake one of my poems for one of Brenda's, or vice-versa. We are to some degree exemplars of our opposite coasts; you can hear behind her poems Duncan and Olson and Projective Verse; you can hear behind mine Lowell and Bishop. But these are broad generalizations, and they're never as interesting as the complex braided strains of real influence, which is always polyphonic. Recently I came across this passage from a book by Joe Eck on garden design, and it seems perfectly appropos:

Every esthetic decision is in part the product of influence. We see gardens we have liked and others we have not; we have noted effects that pleased us and others that seemed contrived. All that history of looking and judging, of liking and resisting, is what we bring to the making of a garden. The precise blend of conscious decision and inchoate memory, or the rational with the deeply felt, amounts to our personal style.

So with this sense of complexity in mind I want to read my poem, Flit. It's a poem interested in collective consciousness -- how groups of creatures like fish or bees seem to think all together, or act in concert. In this case it's a group of black-capped chickadees. I think Brenda's example is in some ways guiding my hand in this poem.

First off, there's a word here that is not a word but simply a clutch of punctuation; it's intended to represent the sound a bird would make noticing you, if you could hear that. Second, the birds here are, as she says in the poem where I began, fragments, but they seem to be coming together into a syntax. So my thinking about the flock inevitably becomes thinking about language as well. Perhaps most importantly here, I wanted to make a poem that seems less the refined artifact of thinking than something closer to immersion in the process of being conscious.


Carol Peters said...

If you put a single space after the last in a string of <&nbsp> commands, you'll get the spacing you're looking for. Also it takes quite a few <&nbsp> commands to make a tab-sized indent.

- Carol

Mark Doty said...

Is there an easier way to make a longer indentation?

Unknown said...

Getting inside the language of the thinking moment as it's happening on the page makes me wonder hard about the editing element; you must carry the idea for a while before committing to the form on the page... so many more things to think about!

Marie-Elizabeth said...

Thanks for posting your talk. I enjoyed listening to it and am glad to have the chance to read it, too.

Unknown said...

You and I have lived parallel lives. I was living in Provincetown when you were there in the late 80s/early 90s, and while you were attending UA, I was a few hundred miles away at San Diego State University, reading the same poets and attending creative writing classes. You mention "strong teachers who had built poetry cultures at particular schools," and for those of us at SDSU in the 70s, it was Carolyn Forche. She brought in Phillip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Merwin as guest readers, and it was all very heady and wonderful. I'm amazed and envious that you were studying with Shelton at that time. Carolyn turned me on to his poetry and I loved it.
Thanks for all of your wonderful blog posts. I so enjoy what you and Paul write.
~Tina Browne

Joy Leftow said...

Your Brenda Hillman's quotes are moving and investigative. Yes she is definitely exploring her writing roots. Your story about how you meet her is inexorably intertwined.
I love this piece and its all around openness.
the christmas tree nature part captures me...