Bow, lyre, poetics

books~~

I’m reading a collection of essays by Octavio Paz (Mexican poet, 1914-1998), The Bow and the Lyre (published in Spanish in 1956 and translated from the 1967 2nd edition by Ruth Simms).

[I like this photo of him but have not yet tracked down the year and the photographer. I’ll try to do that soon for permissions reasons.]

Paz is so quotable. He’s full of marvelous little aphoristic-sounding phrases such as:

“Poetry reveals this world; it creates another. Bread of the chosen; accursed food. It isolates; it unites.” The first chapter of the book begins with these phrases and images, almost biblical in their parallel rhetorical structure and intentionally paradoxical.

“Obedience to rules; creation of others. Imitation of the ancients, copy of the real, copy of a copy of the Idea. Madness, ecstasy, logos.” Here, he moves to triads… “play, work, ascetic activity…vision, music, symbol.”

Then he moves on to style, metricity, historical antecedents, art. “The unrepeatable and unique nature of the poem is shared by other works: paintings, sculptures, sonatas, dances, monuments. To all can be applied the distinction between poem and utensil, style and creation…the diversity of the arts does not hinder but rather emphasizes their diversity.”

The first chapter is philosophical, a kind of poetics taking a vast history as context and individuality as scope. I might have quibbles with some of his assertions; I might find his metaphors and analogies a bit too facile. But I do find the writing juicy and thought-provoking.

~

A fine essay, I must say, is Paz’s fourth chapter on verse and prose. I could read this text over a few times, I could use it to begin a second master’s thesis or to help me teach an advanced class on poetry. Marvelous work! I especially appreciate his insights into the necessity and diversity of rhythm as culturally/linguistically based. And, as a writer from the USA, I love his thinking about the Americas and Europe, our language precedents and influences, and how Paz interprets their differences. What a terrific, brief but clear, exploration into Eliot and Pound! Into Mallarmé an Baudelaire and Poe and the German Romantics, into Joyce and Neruda and Lorca, and the difference between Spanish-speaking poets of the Americas and those of Spain. What a creative inquiry into the development of free verse in three or four different cultures and eras!

I learned a good deal. More later, I suppose.

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The seed of disorder

“I am the seed of disorder.” –Paul Eluard

From an essay by Ezra Pound (published in The Exile):
“The principle of good is enunciated by Confucius. It consists in establishing order within oneself. This order or harmony spreads by a sort of contagion without specific effort.”

As Lewis Hyde, who excerpts the above passage in The Gift notes, Pound offers an implicit paradox here that he apparently could neither acknowledge nor accept. If “good” is order, how can it spread by “a sort of contagion”—surely a chaotic method of disseminating something supposedly well-structured?

Hmm. I turn now to Wallace Stevens—or rather, to Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens—to examine further this “idea of order.” Vendler’s interpretation of the order in Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” includes several approaches. There is order as in organization: the singer in Stevens’ poem creates and hence organizes her physical world. There is order as in command: she orders her world into being by singing, by language. Then there is order as magnitude: “The two Wordsworthian orders of mind and world…exquisitely fitted and yet subtly uneasy with each other,” notes Vendler. The tension Hyde finds and explicates in Pound’s Cantos also exists in Vendler’s examination of Stevens.

Eluard, a poet completely different in style, sensibility, and background from Pound and Stevens, identifies in his poem the workings of that tension, the DNA carrier, the seed of disorder which, it can be plausibly speculated, might well spread its own form of harmony without specific effort, traveling as seeds do through a myriad of dispersal mechanisms such as wind, burrs, digestion and expulsion, burial by mammals, flotation, and the like. (As a gardener, I am constantly amazed at these marvelous mechanisms.)

Well-fitted but uneasy together, disorder through its contagion moves harmony and order to grounds on which what inheres in the seed can survive, even thrive, as it organizes itself into maturity. The seed “follows orders” nature has imposed through genetics. Mind and world, order and self, establish themselves as “good.”

Without that seed of disorder, all is stasis. No art, nor mind nor world, can be produced unless the rebellious seed slips from stem, twig, womb, sac, or lamellae to sing its own idea of order into the world.

For some fabulous photographs of lamellae, see:

Hive Mind on FlickR

Why read difficult books?

Poetry can be difficult, but I love to read it. Poetry is not the only form of ‘hard reading’ I do, though. Reading a text that’s challenging takes more time and more effort on my part, and for a person who is often pressed for time the question presents itself:

Why do I read hard books?

Bachelard. de Bolla. Girard. Kuhn. I’m immersed in Quiddities by W. V. Quine at the moment. Slow going, though I enjoy his sense of humor, because I’m not as comfortable with philosophical terms as I once was. Next up: Derek Parfit.

Philosophy, poetics, aesthetics…not as easy nor, I suppose, as entertaining as popular fiction. I admit I enjoy how novels erase the boundaries between my life and the characters’ lives, their times and places (historical? imaginary? far from Emmaus, Pennsylvania?); it is easy to feel wrapped up in a novel, and I appreciate being taken elsewhere.  I’m a fan of short fiction, too. It’s easy to love fiction.

That’s not always the effect I seek from reading, however. I read non-fiction to become informed, and I especially treasure information that is delivered in a beautiful, literary fashion. John McPhee, James Prosek, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Terry Tempest Williams, to name a few. Writers such as these make reading science and politics and biology and culture and other informational material a joy.

I read difficult texts such as philosophy and physics because I love to think. Thinking deeply has always resulted—for me—in new forms of perspective, in inspiration, and in poetry.

Poetry is sometimes difficult to read, as well. Think of the many ways the word “difficult” can mean in this poetic context: Marie Howe is difficult in a different way than Jorie Graham, or Lyn Hejinian, or Ezra Pound, Gray Jacobik, or Gregory Orr’s early collection Gathering the Bones Together.

Stuff that is hard to read can be extremely rewarding. And, when I am puzzled (which I often am), I feel inspired to question and to observe…which leads to writing. Much of what we call “art” is a response to difficulty.

Oh, how I relish the difficult!