Poetry Month & Simic’s prose

I have read and enjoyed a great deal of Charles Simic‘s poetry over the years. How did I miss his prose?

I just picked up The Life of Images (2015) and find myself delighted indeed. This book makes a wonderful read for National Poetry Month, despite its subtitle “Selected Prose,” because so many of the pieces in this collection are about poetry or act as prose poems–a form Simic is well-known for.

Every other paragraph or so I find myself wanting to write down a glorious sentence, or a quote I should share with my poetry students, or a concise description that fits perfectly, such as Simic’s observation about Buster Keaton‘s persona in his silent movies: “Bedeviled by endless obstacles, Buster is your average slow-thinking fellow, seeking a hidden logic in an illogical world.”

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Being of a philosophical bent myself, I was thrilled to read and then re-read “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” with its foundation of Heidegger and Simic’s sly and humorous references to Hegel, Schroedinger, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whitman and others. That essay is really a series of prose poems that resemble philosophical puzzles and paradoxes.

His essays here often focus on visual art, as well. Movies, paintings, photographs. The image as metaphor.

“The poet is at the mercy of his metaphors. Everything is at the mercy of the poet’s metaphors, even Language, who is their Lord and master.” Ah, yes. One of many paradoxes surrounding the practice and theory of poetry:

“Everything would be simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot…It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants me to go.”

“Metaphor is a part of the not-knowing aspect of art, and yet I’m firmly convinced that it is the supreme way of searching for truth.”

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The usual progression of spring unfurls and blossoms around me, a bounty of images, thank goodness, and Simic has me mulling over my metaphors again.

 

 

 

 

Paz and poetic image

“The image is the key to the human condition.”

“Poetry is entry into being.”  ~Octavio Paz

All quotes in text below are from Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

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Octavio Paz says all great works of art arouse in the spectator (or listener) “constellations of images” which “turn all works of art into poems.” In addition, what we find in the poem is something we already have within ourselves; we could not encounter it otherwise. What would that something within ourselves be? What do all of us possess in common, unique as we are? Paz doesn’t opt for a concept such as “soul” or “spirit” to define what all humans possess within ourselves. His answer is more mysterious but I think more accurate… “Poetry is nothing but time, rhythm perpetually creative.”

Some of us may protest we are not “creative.” But creative in this sense doesn’t mean that one has the ability to create art. It means one has the ability to create the imagined sensation, emotion, or context. All of us do this: the human concept of time, for example, takes considerable imagination–yet we all seem to have an understanding of time in our daily lives, even if our individual perceptions, or cultural perceptions, of time may vary a good deal. Give that idea of time, whatever it may be, a rhythm fueled by “rhythm as transformative change,” and perhaps that would be the origin of art. To encounter and be changed can only occur when something unexpected occurs through the experience.

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“The image shocks because it defies the principle of contradiction: the heavy is the light. When it enunciates the identity of opposites, it attacks the foundations of our thinking. Therefore, the poem does not say what is, but what could be.”

“Since Parmenides our [Western] world has been the world of the clear and trenchant distinction between what is and what is not…Mysticism and poetry have thus lived a subsidiary, clandestine and diminished life. [As a result] man is in exile from the cosmic flux and from himself.”

(Here, I might suggest that Whitman made a significant attempt to bring those distinctions down.)

~books

Heidegger was still alive and writing when Paz was composing these essays, and Paz suggests that Heidegger had been no more able to reconcile the fact that “Western metaphysics ends in a solipsism” than were Husserl or Heraclitus. Paz adds: “Now, as some of his [Heidegger’s] writings show, he has turned to poetry,” and claims that “in losing our way in the world we have become estranged from ourselves. We have to begin again.”

And how to do so–except via image/imagination?

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Well, we might examine Eastern thought, which “has not suffered this horror of the ‘other,’ of what is and is not at the same time…in the most ancient Upanishad the principle of the identity of opposites is plainly stated… ‘That art Thou.'”

Image as opposition, reconciled and unreconciled, inferred and stated, heavy and light: “of itself, language is an infinite possibility of meanings.”

This may be why writing good how-to instructions is as challenging as writing good poems. Yet according to Paz, “There are many ways to say the same thing in prose; there is only one in poetry.” Which brings us to a lovely seeming-paradox with which I will end this post:

“The poetic experience cannot be reduced to the word and, nevertheless, only the word expresses it. The image reconciles opposites, but this reconciliation cannot be explained by words…thus, the image is a desperate measure against the silence that invades us each time we try to express the terrible experience of that which surrounds us and ourselves. The poem is language in tension.”

(I might add that Emily Dickinson’s work provides excellent examples of the above.)

Too difficult?

Another difficult book, Poetry, Language, Thought by Heidegger offered me less insight than I’d hoped and irritated me more than other philosophical readings I’ve been perusing lately. I do see a link between Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, etc.; these essays also connect to linguistic and semiotic philosophies. In the semiotic-etymological vein, however, I much prefer Umberto Eco‘s writing.

Of the essays in Poetry, Language, Thought, my favorites are “The Thinker as Poet,” “Building Dwelling Thinking,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art,” although that last one is problematic in a number of ways. Heidegger uses etymology, history, and his own concept of the fourfold making  up the onefoldedness of being (crucial to his philosophical cosmos but unconvincing to me) to question being and origin. The problem, always, is language. How to express the inexpressible? How can we use words to communicate when we cannot even reasonably define them–there’s no staying-in-place with words. Wittgenstein proves that even so simple a word as “game” has no single, stable definition that can serve as a premise for a logical assertion–yet, he notes, we do not need a definition in order to use the word. [For a ‘cave-man’s explanation’ of this topic, see the section called “Meaning and Definition” in this Wiki article: philosophical investigations.]

Dwelling: a light-house

Dwelling: a light-house

As a poet, I work with words, so these ideas interest me. Heidegger hasn’t helped much, though his discussion of what it means to “dwell in” will stay with me, resonating a bit with Arne Naess’ writing. I also found helpful his assertion that the best meaning for the word truth is unconcealedness. I like the idea that Truth, that vague abstract Big Concept we invoke so often as pursuit or justification, is always and ever present–but that we must un-conceal it, a slight variance in connotation from the usually-cited revealing of truth.

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Some Heidegger quotes of note:

“Truth is at work in the work [of art]”

“Art…is the becoming and happening of truth. All art is essentially poetry” –because, “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of what is.”

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So onto what irritated me. Among other things, most of all the essay “What Are Poets For?” The discussion stems from a famous line of Hölderlin‘s: “…and what are poets for in a destitute time?” Heidegger proceeds to use this famous inquiry to examine a lesser known poem by Ranier Maria Rilke–in the sort of philosophical critical analysis that drives me bonkers. Granted, this is a personal bias of mine and I won’t go into a rant upon it in this post. But, if you have read Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, you’ll have some idea of what I mean by interpretation for one’s own purposes. This essay could almost have been Nabokov’s inspiration.

Maybe it’s me, and Heidegger is just too brilliant for my limited depth in philosophy and art. But I am pleased to be leaving him behind now and am already enthusiastic about the lectures and essays in Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre.

I suppose I ought to stick with poets who philosophize about poetry.

Hail and Heidegger

hail and roses

Another freakish, brief summer storm swept through–this time bringing wind, fog, downpours, and hail. Not a gardener’s favorite weather system under any circumstances. Some years ago, a June 9 hailstorm literally decimated (reduced by 10%…though I think it was more like 25%) my gardens and produced the mammatus cloudforms that show up on my “About” page. Yesterday’s hailstorm was–thankfully–not as damaging. Most of the plants will recover fairly rapidly, I think.

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Meanwhile, I’m trying to educate myself a bit more on the history of phenomenology as it relates to poetry, art, and poetics by reading a bit of Martin Heidegger. This is a backwards chronology, but I’m not feeling ready to take up Husserl yet. Heidegger’s also problematic because of his early embrace of the Nazi party (he resigned early, too, in 1938, but never made a full repudiation). I understand that great thinkers can nonetheless be very flawed human beings. Michael Wheeler’s thorough essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy touches on some of the contradictions and covers Heidegger’s major work. But I am reading Hofstadter’s translation of “Poetry, Language, Thought” and six other shorter essays, such as “What Are Poets For?” and “The Origin of a Work of Art.” Actually, it is hard to consider the first text as an essay. It’s more like a poem in aphorisms. An excerpt:

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When through a rent in the rain-clouded
sky a ray of sun suddenly glides
over the gloom of the meadows .  .  .  .

We never come to thoughts. They come
to us.

That is the proper hour of discourse.

Discourse cheers us to companionable
reflection. Such reflection neither
parades polemical opinions nor does it
tolerate complaisant agreement. The sail
of thinking keeps trimmed hard to the
wind of the matter.

From such companionship a few perhaps
may rise to be journeymen in the
craft of thinking. So that one of them,
unforeseen, may become a master.

~

Almost Confucian, no?

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Later in his life, Heidegger moved on from his earlier philosophizing on the ontology of being (he pointed out the need to define “exist” as a premise in any such inquiry) and began to suggest that art exists within the materials/tools of the artist as well as within the artist’s being and abilities, all in a perhaps simultaneous collection of conditions. Wheeler says, “poiesis is to be understood as a process of gathering together and fashioning natural materials in such a way that the human project in which they figure is in a deep harmony with, indeed reveals—or as Heidegger sometimes says when discussing poiesis, brings forth—the essence of those materials and any natural environment in which they are set.”

Heidegger writes, for example, that “a true cabinetmaker…makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork…” Wheeler calls this manifestation of the art within the materials (which the artist must understand in order to use her talents and tools to bring forth) a “process of revealing.” Kin, I suppose, to the words often attributed to Michelangelo: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

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Art, gardens, weather, poetry, the craft of thinking…all processes of revealing and transformation. “We never come to thoughts. They come to us.”ann e. michael hail foot