Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Interrogating poetry


Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not. — Geoffrey Hill

There seems to be a school of thought that says a poet will lose brownie points if he doesn't make his readers work a bit. A reader with any sense knows he's going to have to work a bit to get anything from a poem. Poems by their very nature contain layers of meaning. They are not equations, however; things to be solved.

Let’s take an example, the poem 'Whoroscope' by Samuel Beckett.

‘Whoroscope’ is a long poem (98 lines) in which the philosopher, Rene Descartes, waits for his morning omelette of well-aged eggs, while meditating on the obscurity of theological mysteries, the passage of time, and the approach of death. There is no rhythmical pattern, and the poem’s mannered colloquialisms and oratorical informalities give it an aura less of poetry than of desultory chatter. Samuel Beckett uses minor and sometimes intimate details of Descartes’s life that he found in a biography of the philosopher written by Adrien Baillet.

There is no doubt that ‘Whoroscope’ is a difficult poem. It comes with 18 notes from the author, for goodness sake. What it is not is an impossible poem. There is a difference. With study one can learn what Beckett is referring to. The facts are out there. You could read Adrien Baillet’s biography for starters. Beckett learned the facts and we could learn them to. Now whether the effort involved in learning those facts makes the poem worth reading is another matter, but the bottom line is that a reasonably clear understanding of what Beckett was trying to convey is possible.

There are other poems where I can guarantee that you will never work out what the author intended because the author had no clear intent. He has left that entirely with his readers. I have poems written years ago that when I look at them now I wonder what must have been going through my mind. I just can’t remember, so even if you did sit me down and give me your interpretation of my work, I wouldn’t be able to say yea or nay. The best I could say would be, “Well, that sounds plausible.”

It is in the nature of words not to adhere to rigid definitions. Even a simple word like ‘cat’ will mean so many different things but most of us define a cat based on personal experiences of cats we’ve known. My mother had cats all her life and so my own definitions are based on years of interactions with those cats. I never think that a cat in the street is going to leap at me and try to claw my eyes out and yet some people are terrified of cats. And some are just dog people.

And that’s just a word. The more words we string together the harder things get.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To get to the other side

Everyone’s heard that. But what does it mean? It means the chicken wanted to get to the other side of the road. No? Or does it mean that the chicken was trying to kill itself so it could get to “the other side”, a popular euphemism for life after death? (See the notes on the interprchicken-crossing-the-roadetation of Beckett’s radio play All that Fall.) Without context your guess is as good as mine.

Poems frequently lack context, especially the very short ones. No one thinks of a haiku as especially complex but most of them are. They can be read superficially and so often seem to be obvious but that’s the difference between glancing and seeing. To see you need to look. And most people don’t think they have the time for that.

One of things people often ask poets to do is explain their poetry. What does it mean?

Seems like a reasonable question.

In an interview in Jacket Magazine the poet John Ashbery was asked this question:

John Tranter: I remember buying a book called Singular Voices by Stephen Berg: it was an anthology where each poet contributed a poem and then wrote an explanatory article to go after it. Berg mentioned in his introduction that you had declined to provide a poem and an explanatory article, and that you were going to write an essay about why you’d declined. Did you ever write the essay?

to which he replied:

John Ashbery: No, I never did it, and at some point he stopped asking me about it so I guess he realized that I didn’t really want to do it. It just seems that people will do almost anything rather than read a poem and try and come to terms with it, you know. A statement from the poet about what he meant in the poem is considered to be very helpful, but my point is that it really isn’t going to help anybody since it’s just a paraphrase, operating at some distance. And it’s rather annoying to be asked to do something like that, especially by a poet, who should know better. — italics mine

Poets write about life, real life, the kind of real lives that you and I live. Sit down one of these days and try and make sense out of your life and you’ll realise that it doesn’t translate into words so easily. So why should poems be easy? Because that’s the job of the poet; they’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t they?

In an article about Ashbery the reviewer, Nicholas Lezard, presents the first stanza from one of his poems:

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

and then asks:

So, what's all that about? You learn quickly, reading an Ashbery poem, that the word "about" isn't exactly the right tool with which to evaluate it. However, you also find that, once started, an Ashbery poem is hard to put down or dismiss. You might not understand what he is saying, but he has a tonal directness, an almost conversational charm, which makes reading him a pleasure.

I’m not sure why Lezard didn’t quote the whole poemOval Dog because it’s not long. Here’s the whole thing:

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

In a review of the collection from which this poem comes Ramez Qureshi had this to say:

The pace slows down for that famous Ashberyian climax of the final humanizing line, in this case both a note of erotic pathos and an address to the absent reader. Consider the beginning: the room is a dream of itself. We are alerted to Ashbery’s quasi-surrealist influences in Roussel and Reverdy. The room, because it is dream, becomes the place for poetry, “the scene of writing” in Derrida’s phrase, from which Ashbery can address his reader, from which “something shimmers” yet is “hushed,” a description of Ashbery’s voice.

Rachel Barenblat came up with this:

Although ‘This Room’ is short, it pulls me through a range of emotions. With Ashbery, I leap from seeing that there is something at the core of a dream/life that is unspoken (or unspeakable) to a line about quail that makes me think of Alice in Wonderland. And then, at the end of the poem, my laughter turns sad as the narrator wonders aloud why he speaks.

Moira Egan said that someone by the name of

Professor Bacigalupo ... mentions the thing that I said on the radio interview, that, if you read Ashbery’s ‘This Room’ (Questa Stanza!) as a kind of ars poetica, some of the lines function as well as any definition of poetry that I know.

Sy Dedalus’s thoughts:

Such loss in these lines. The dedication "For Pierre Martory 1920-1998" in Your Name Here suggests a specific "you," but there is never a specific "you" in Ashbery. And of course, the absence of "you" does not only imply death; "you" could be in the next room – the next compartment of memory, since this is a poem primarily about memory. But how suddenly those last lines come, with all their weight. That is Ashbery's genius: making the ordinary heavy and meaningful, and thereby reinscribing meaning in throwaway statements like "Why do I tell you these things?"

John Ashbery is Geoff Klock’s favourite poet. Here are his thoughts on ‘This Room’:

Ashbery is a strange poet: many of his poems feel like dreams. "Stanza" — the poetry equivalent of a paragraph — is an Italian word that means "room," so Ashbery suggests that anything he talks about in his poetry is likely to be a dream version of a real thing. A major theory about dreams (from Jung I think) is that everything in the dream represents a part of the dreamer, so Ashbery identifies all the feet as his and the portrait of the dog as himself. In a dream, as in Ashbery's poetry, you can barely tell what is going on, though what you glimpse always seems very important: what he says in this poem is true of his style generally: "Something shimmers, something is hushed up." The problem with seeing poetry as a kind of dream is that a dream is an essentially private experience; John Stuart Mill said that while prose is written to communicate with others, the poet speaks to himself, and is "overheard" by readers, who are not directly a part of what is going on. Ashbery is thinking of this as he offers us a strange statement on food which seems important to him but means nothing to us, and then wonders why he bothers. The poem sets up the volume, in which we glimpse, but never quite see, the personal experience contained in the poems.

Lera Auerbach had a good crack at it:

It is a beautiful short poem that exists on polyphonic levels and floats freely between them. The beauty is in its simplicity — the domestication of a dream. Yet the poem takes the reader to that deliciously fragile place, where “something shimmers, something is hashed up.” Some of the most defining moments, when life reveals itself as is, can only shimmer on the edge of consciousness. One can only glance at it sidelong, but never directly. You can’t stare at the sun; you can only squint through your half-closed fingers.

The first line connects to René Magritte’s thought provoking painting ‘La trahison des images’

Magritte - This is Not a Pipe
featuring a pipe with a sign “This is not a pipe”. The words only appear to contradict the image, but are, in fact, correct: the painting itself is not a pipe.

What is reality? What is an idea of reality? Where do dreams end?

All these feet on the sofa and the oval portrait of the artist as a young man, pardon me, as a dog, (my own life as a dog has been over-stimulated by the smell of that quail) – seduce the reader to smile inwardly.

Again this child-like unpretentious simplicity where time and generations melt. (Of course that portrait had to be oval! Don’t you just see it in its slightly ornate dark-wood frame? And the greenish old wallpaper on the wall on which it hangs?)

The passive voice in the line about the quail makes it sound like the quail gave permission to be served for lunch. The combination of the past tense and passive voice is a recipe for a disaster in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ashbery, with a mischievous smile, creates magic with it.

The most striking line is the last line of the poem. Just like the poet is missing from that dream of a room (yes, the dream goes on forever in some other realm, different from the one in which he is writing the poem), so is the reader, the “you” is missing from the reality-room-space of the poet. The ghost visit of a poet in this dream of a room is parallel to the ghost visit of a reader in the space of this poem. Yet both ghosts shimmer and can somehow sense each other’s presence (or absence). Similarly, the independent voices of a fugue can intervene and briefly cross each other’s horizontal paths while making perfect sense harmonically (thus vertically).

Tim Thornton cuts to the quick:

This I love, but I can hardly begin to fathom why.

John Ashbery was once asked why the Germans in particular loved his poetry so much, and he replied “They never said.” Another time he said:

I think my poems mean what they say ... There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing.

Beckett said something very similar:

Beckett had been warning us all along about the meaninglessness — or the Lessness — of his work. Or as he put it himself in referring to the language of his novel How It Is, meaning is a "rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction". And elsewhere he avedons_beckett_1979 emphasized that Language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there. — Raymond Federman, The Imagery Museum of Samuel Beckett

Whether we are aware of it or not, a function of our minds is to take in raw sensory input and discern patterns in it from which meaning can be derived. Art takes place in the space between raw perception and automatic interpretation and wakes us to fresh ways of seeing. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning is produced by the one who perceives, although under the guidance of clues embedded in the work. The interaction between the reader and the literary work is prompted and maintained by successive gaps or incongruities in the narrative structure which make interpretation necessary and grant the space in which to interpret the relation of the elements in the work. — Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr, Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning

Would it help if I said what I think or would it simply add to the confusion?

One of the reasons that many people don’t understand poetry is that they ask the wrong questions. It’s like the person who views a piece of Abstract Expressionism (and Ashbery’s work has been compared to abstract art[1]) asks:


What is it supposed to be? Probably one of the best-known poems about reading poetry is by Billy Collins and he makes his point well in the final two stanzas:

Introduction to Poetry

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

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

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

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

In his article What Poetry Can Not Say, Robert Peake concludes with this paragraph:

This push-pull relationship between the idea of the reader and the integrity of the intangible subject is what makes writing even a single poem that matters a remarkably profound pursuit. It is also what makes each attempt so immensely pleasurable, infinitely more so than simply living and thinking in ways unexamined and unexpressed. So let us praise not only difficult poetry, but the beautiful dance between what can not be said and how much we need to say it.

It’s a good way to describe the relationship between a reader and a writer, a poem standing in as the writer’s proxy. It’s not the place of the poem to give and give and give, the reader also sometimes has to give ground, change their perspective, ask the right questions and try and not get upset when the answers are now what they expected on wanted to hear.

Every poem I write is an experiment, an attempt to say one thing and mean something else. Wouldn’t it be easier if I just said what I meant? Yes, of course, it would but I don’t have those words and so I use the ones I have available at the time. Why am I telling you this? You’re not here. I don’t even know who ‘you’ are. I need to tell someone though and I guess you’ll do.

The shape of a poem encourages a certain mindset if it does nothing else. When you see a column of words on a page you think immediately, Ah, I'm going to have to think about this. There will be more going on that just the words.

Many people are not open to poetry but that's because they've encountered poetry that slams a door in their face. Bafflement, they believe, is part of the condition of modern poetry. Great poetry, as T S Eliot said, can communicate before it is understood. I'll be honest Eliot's meanings don't always jump off the page at me but I can't say they don't communicate. So, what is the difference?

E=mc2 E=mc2. There I have communicated something. Do you understand what I said? Yes, I said, “E=mc2,” but do you understand what that means? Most of you know that E=mc2 means “energy equals mass times the speed of light squared” but what does that mean? It means that energy and mass are the same thing under different conditions. But what does that mean? I know what the words mean but I don’t understand them. And the same goes for most poems. There’s not a single hard word in the John Ashbery poem. It’s no harder to read that the Billy Collins poem. Both require work to get to the deeper meanings that each poem contains.

To many Billy Collins is the anti-John Ashbery, well known for his accessible poetry but consider this statement by him:

I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty. The poem is not, as someone put it, deflective of entry. But the real question is what happens to the reader once he or she gets inside the poem? That's the real question for me, is getting the reader into the poem and then taking the reader somewhere because I think of poetry as a kind of form of travel writing.

I agree totally. Every poem takes you on a journey. You can drag your heels and not get very far or you can fly. It’s up to you. Let me leave you with a poem of mine which you can walk into without difficulty but what you do in its rooms (Italian: stanze) is entirely up to you:

A Poem is not an Empty Room

A man walks into
an empty room.
There is nothing there
and no one there.

That is to say no
one else is there.
He is all alone
with his own thoughts.

Entering the room
is significant.
Being in the room
is significant.

Where the room is
is irrelevant.
Who the man is
is not important.

What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though

while he's waiting.

Wednesday, 05 December 2007


[1] Interviewer: I suppose there are many things we might expect from a poet who has so strong an interest in painting as you do. Various critics have suggested that you are a mannerist in words, or an abstract expressionist. Are you conscious of anything like that — or perhaps of performing a cubist experiment with words?

Ashbery: I suppose the ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is a mannerist work in what I hope is the good sense of the word. Later on, mannerism became mannered, but at first it was a pure novelty — Parmigianino was an early mannerist, coming right on the heels of Michelangelo. I have probably been influenced, more or less unconsciously I suppose, by the modern art that I have looked at. Certainly the simultaneity of cubism is something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the abstract expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an “antireferential sensuousness,” but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that. When I was fresh out of college, abstract expressionism was the most exciting thing in the arts. There was also experimental music and film, but poetry seemed quite conventional in comparison. I guess it still is, in a way. One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience. — The Art of Poetry No 33: John Ashbery, The Paris Review


Loren Eaton said...

There are other poems where I can guarantee that you will never work out what the author intended because the author had no clear intent. He has left that entirely with his readers.

Yes, and isn't funny how this tends to happen more with verse than prose narrative and more in the 20th century than during earlier times? I wonder if it has to do with the devaluing of the author in critical theory. Honestly, poets who adhere to the "wax nose" school of composition trouble me a bit. The point of writing is to communicate something, even if it is intentionally nebulous or (at the other end of the spectrum) many-layered.

willow said...

We were discussing this subject at the dinner table this week. There are several of my readers who want to solve my poetry as if it is a mathematical equation. Excellent post.

Kass said...

Geoffrey Hill might have added, "... but the 'duty' of poetic intention lies atop, amidst and throughout the layers of toilet paper."

Yes, I know, my brain is a loo of poetic refuse.

This fine article does not deserve such base comparisons, especially as I believe poetry to be an artistic form that has significantly upgraded my life.

The "this is not a pipe" painting is intriguing as I contemplate the words this is not a pipe not being exactly what they appear, but merely a second-hand interpretation of a now-lost meaning.

When we consider how a representation of a thing is always like something else, but never quite the thing itself, it boggles the mind how removed from original reality 'the thing' and we can become, but maybe that's the point of art.

Someone has said, " gives you yourself," but that statement presents so many possibilities, it becomes self-limiting.

These lines from your poem are so probing:

What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though

while he's waiting. Beckettesque...

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never heard that expression before, Loren, “wax nose”, it’s interesting. I often get frustrated by what I see as my blinkered vision. I’m an intelligent person. There are many things I’m not particularly knowledgeable about but I should have it within me to grasp most things with a bit of effort. And I appreciate that a bit of effort is required. I don’t mind putting in the effort but I’m not always sure with poetry what kind of effort to put in. I find some poems are like Chinese finger puzzles. Brute force is not the answer; mental agility is. My poem at the end is like that. You can read it as many times as you like but you won’t get it until you think about it.

I get irritated by a lot of poems because I don’t know how to read them. I want someone to come along and not necessarily explain the poem but explain how I should approach the poem. If there’s no meaning then what is there? When Beckett was talking to one of the actresses who was playing the part of Mouth in Not I he said that he wasn’t overly concerned with the audience being able to hear every single word. What he wanted was to work on the nerves of the audience. That doesn’t mean that the text is meaningless but that meaning is secondary. Understanding that helps one to get into the right mindset before watching the piece.

The point is we instinctively look for meanings in things especially words which we have become used to being containers of meaning. To be told that they’re not being used for that purpose is confusing, at least to me. But I’m game, as long as I know what the rules are.

Willow, is meaning not a kind of solution? A poem is not an equation – there’s not a right answer – but there are limits as to what you can read in between the lines without stretching the thing to breaking point. A poem contains a fixed number of words, like fuel tank, and they can only take you so far. A gallon of petrol would take you from my flat to Loch Lomond, to the seaside town of Ayr, to the centre of Glasgow and you might just make Edinburgh if you don’t push it. But it won’t take you to Alaska or the Suez Canal; that would be too much to ask. A poem delineates a mental area which we can explore.

And, Kass, you said my poem reads like Beckett. That pleases me no end. Of course hearing Beckett in the lines opens up another way of looking at the piece. A reader with no experience of him wouldn’t have seen that. I have a poem entitled ‘Do Not Read this Poem’ and a few years ago Carrie and I had a friend over and her daughter who would have been about eight at the time was flicking through my big red book of poetry. When she came across this piece she said, “Okay,” and turned the page without reading the poem, the only person I’ve ever seen do that. The whole point of the poem is to point out what kind of person can’t not read a poem that says, “Don’t read me.” People approach poems with preconceptions and expectations. One of those is to be able to stand apart from the poem. In that poem, and in ‘A Poem is not an Empty Room’, I wanted to include the reader as a part of the poem. There’s no set of instructions telling my readers that was what I intended. My hope is that it’ll dawn on them and so, seeing that I’ve taken that stance with my own material, it would be a bit hypocritical to demand that other authors provide a set of instructions on how to read their poems but were someone like Ashbery provides me with instructions – which he does by saying that, “There is no message” - I’m left wondering what to do with the damn things.

Ken Armstrong said...

Interesting that I came to comment on this post equipped with a cut-and-paste of the exact same sentence which Loren Eaton used above. It's a very good, interesting and telling sentence and to have a real-live poet confirm it is very ticklesome.

I still have that Beckett programme on my desk for you. I have never found anything to seal the autographs on the inside cover. Someday I will... I bloody swear it. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Ken, considering the fact I’ve been writing poetry for so long a lot of the time I feel quite ignorant. I look at poets out there half my age teaching writing classes and half the time I think I should be joining them, the classes I mean. I’ve just pottered away in my own backwater and got good at what I do. I suppose I’m like a musician who specialises in a specific kind of music. One of the first concerts I went to featured a Russian pianist who had decided to take Rhapsody in Blue on the road to give himself a break from his usual repertoire. There are times I’d like to do that with my poetry and to a certain extent I have been doing that recently writing poems in the styles of Bukowski, Pinter and Larkin. But I can’t get over the hump of meaning. I don’t have the same problem with music. I listen to everything from Gregorian chant right though to the most avant-garde of the avant-garde quite happily because there I can put my search for meaning aside and only worry about my feelings.

As for the poster. That I’ve waited so long for a poster for Waiting for Godot is, I think, highly amusing; don’t you? Don’t worry about it.

Dave King said...

The really inaccessible poems are the ones the author never intended you to enter into completely. The Waste Land, for example. The barriers are deliberate, put there to make a point, to keep you working at it. Significantly, his notes do not help in the slightest. My own view is that the genuinely
impenetrable poem maybe doesn't need to be laid siege to. Just to walk around it a bit, view it from all sides may be enough. It is foggy, to be sure, but the fog becomes mist, and the mist drifts across to engulf you - and you're in!

Dave King said...

Forgot to add: superb post!

Jim Murdoch said...

Fair point, Dave, and that’s fine for someone like Eliot who now has a reputation but I seriously wonder who out there is going to slog away at one of my poems. Perhaps I’m selling myself short, perhaps I’m judging Generation-Web unfairly but I don’t think that many new poets will ever get studied to the same extent as Eliot has been. I think people read and pass on by. I know I do. But then the only poetry I really read these days is online and it gets treated as all other online work. Glad you liked the post.

Loren Eaton said...


A "wax nose" is something that can be bent any which way. Fun image, isn't it?

A professor once gave me the best poetry advice I've ever heard. He said that instead of diving immediately into interpretation of a poem, we ought to spend time with. Read it; read it again; stare at the page; and read it yet another time. That basic fluency with the words on the page eventually leads to undertanding. Only it takes patience, the most challenging of the virtues.

Jim Murdoch said...

It is, Loren, considering how bendable noses are in the first place.

Your professor's advice is excellent. It really ties in with the comment I made to Dave about the way Generation-Web reads. We really don't take the time to savour stuff.

Ken Armstrong said...

Good point.

"Here's it is... no, wait..."


Brent Robison said...

Jim, this is a valuable piece of "interrogation," not only for poets but for fictionistas like me. I'm with Ashberry on the subject of talking about my stories' "meanings." I've gotten unappreciative stares a few times when my response to a question about my work has been something like: "I already wrote 10,000 carefully chosen words which say exactly the thing I wanted to say, so how can I say more words about those words?" Which is to say, the meaning is yours to decide as a reader. Other times, I'll be more loquacious about my goals, but I do question the value of that. Seems to me that I must write to explore meaning for myself, and let go of how the reader interprets it. Easier said than done, my ego whispers.

As to reading for meaning, I like the responsibility of my own interpretations, but on rare occasions I am enlightened by others' analysis, including the author's.

Love your Empty Room poem. Reminded me of a favorite piece of prose, White Spaces, from Paul Auster's book Disappearances: Selected Poems.

Brent Robison said...

Here's a link the Auster piece:

Art Durkee said...

Q. Why did Ernest Hemingway's chicken cross the road?

A. To die. Alone. in the rain.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Brent. You know Beckett wasn’t one for explaining his work. A lot of the time it depended on his mood and students of his work make the most of these little insights but they’re really just breadcrumbs and the trail peters out soon enough but at least we know we’re heading in the right direction. Let’s take Waiting for Godot as an example. The conclusion most people come to without seeing anything other than the play is that Godot is God – it’s not an unreasonable thing to think in a play which is full of religious imagery – and yet Beckett finally did come out and state categorically and in so many words that, “Godot is not God,” which doesn’t mean that a religious interpretation of Godot is not possible but it was not intended. Beckett hated explaining his work but he was more open to explaining how to approach his work and much of our understanding of his work comes from his instructions to actors.

I talk about my writing on my blog more for the benefit of other poets than readers. When I started off writing poetry I just muddled along without a clue. No one seemed to want to talk about how to write poetry. The result was I wrote a helluva lot of bad poetry while I was trying to find my way. I have a limited palette but I feel a responsibility to share what I know and as I look into more aspects of poetry I share my findings. I don’t explain every poem. I didn’t explain ‘A Poem is not an Empty Room’ but I did suggest how the poem should be read.

Thanks for the Auster link. I read his essay Portrait of an Invisible Man last week while travelling to the airport to pick up Carrie. It’s only the second thing by him I’ve read but I really enjoyed his Travels in the Scriptorium which I reviewed a while back.

Art Durkee said...

Geoffrey Hill's comment is only one of the ways in which I find him arrogant. And all the hype around him, as the "greatest living poet," tends to make me care rather less than more.

I think the example of Beckett's advice to the actor is right on target: the words themselves don't matter nearly as much as the effect their delivery creates. That's very much how I feel about the individual words in my own writing. Certainly they convey meaning, but I could have used several different means to the same end. And in writing music, the individual notes I choose mean less, sometimes, than the gesture or shape they sketch out. It's not about what form or key or meter I'm writing in, but about what is conveyed to the listener.

As for Ashbery, well, let's just say that in fact he is indeed a Mannerist—but not in the positive way that he hopes to be. Ashbery, along with the Language Poets and the neo-formalists alike, is mannerist—I've argued that all of postmodern poetics is Mannerist—is the same way the Mannerism in art history followed the Baroque period, and was identically focused on surface effects while void of genuine innovation. Mannerism repeats existing tropes, stretching and exaggerating them, while having nothing new to say. I find Ashbery unreadable precisely because there's nothing to hang onto in there, and thus no point. If I wanted to read an entire book-length poem that was purely surface effects and Surrealism Lite, I would write my own instead.

Brent Robison said...

Wow, Jim, great review of Travels in the Scriptorium. It is one of the few Auster things I have not read, mostly because of the negative reviews. Now that I've read your review, I'll get the book.

I appreciate all the Beckett info. I've barely touched Beckett but he's prominent on my To Read list. Regarding "report" style fiction, I've always loved Borges.

Portrait of an Invisible Man works well as half of the book The Invention of Solitude, perhaps my favorite memoir ever. Auster has been one of the most profound inspirations for me since I discovered him around '92. I continually return to The New York Trology, as well as others. Enjoy!

Jim Murdoch said...

One of my constant gripes, Art, is that there are approaches to poetry that I feel are closed off to me. I know next-to-nothing about either Hill of Ashbery. I came across that quote of Hill’s, wrote it down and stumbled upon it months later when I was looking for a new blog to write. I decided to take a poem I didn’t understand and see what other people had to say about it. The bottom line is that I still don’t understand it which is why I didn’t contribute my thoughts on the piece.

When you look at some of Beckett’s later prose works they are quite shocking: the language is simplistic, the grammar and punctuation non-standard and if anyone else had tried to get them published they’d probably not have got very far but when you look at Beckett’s early work you realise that this is a literary genius and geniuses do things for reasons. And so I persist with Beckett where I would have packed it in years ago with an unknown.

I don’t mind having to work at a piece of writing but at the same time I’d hate to think that someone’s trying to sell me an invisible suit.

And, Brent, yes, the reviews I read of Travels in the Scriptorium were mixed and I can see why it might disappoint. I liked it though. I went straight out and bought two other books by him, one of which was the New York Trilogy but I’ve not got round to it yet.

Beckett is best approached through his plays most of which are available on YouTube if you don’t mind watching them in 10min snippets. I’d go for Krapp’s Last Tape first of all. It’s a one-act play and probably his most accessible work. There’s a version kicking around with Harold Pinter playing Krapp. It’s not a definitive performance but it’s a good introduction. Here’s a link to Part 1.Waiting for Godot is the better known play though. As far as books go, I’d start with Murphy. The prose before that is very Joycean. It’s not his best work IMHO.

Art Durkee said...

I'm with you about Beckett, again. My way into really appreciating Beckett was through reading The Collected Shorter Plays, some of which verge on prose-poem type monologues or very simple yet profound scenarios. "Cascando{" and "Words and Music" are two of my favorites.

I also really like the late pieces like "Ohio Impromptu" and "Rockaby."

I thin one thing people often miss about Beckett is how funny many of his plays are. it's not just the existential despair, it's laughing at the existential absurdity. Sometimes all you can do in life is laugh at it all.

I am very fond of the late prose-poems, or prose pieces, or whatever we want to call them. I find some of his most deeply affecting writing in there, at least for me. They do something to your mind, even if you don't understand every piece of it. I admit that's been an influence on some of my own writing.

Jim Murdoch said...

The Collected Shorter Plays was the first book I bought after watching Waiting for Godot, Art. It was quite beyond me at the time and it was years before I saw all the plays. My wife bought me the collected Beckett on Film set a while ago and so I’ve now seen them all. And you’re right, Beckett can be very funny but it’s not until you’re sitting in an audience that’s laughing around you that that’s always apparent. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," as Beckett wrote in Endgame and when you have a close look at what we find funny so much of our humour has to do with people who find themselves in not the best of circumstances. I think a lot of what we find funny is watching people suffer and thanking God that that’s not us.

I enjoy Beckett’s short pose pieces but I can’t read them one after another; they require concentration. I wish I could find the time to study them in depth. Like his poetry not a huge amount has been written about them, not compared to the plays; I have several books discussing them in minute detail.

Now you mention it I think the novella First Love with its wonderful (and funny) opening line, “Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards…” would be another good place for the novice to start especially if they can find a copy that also contains ‘The Expelled’, ’The Calmative’ and ’The End’.

litrefs said...

Would it help if I said ...? - as usual, I agree with what you've written. When readers (me included) say "when does it mean?" or "I don't understand it" they may not be looking for the most appropriate type of "meaning" - they may already "understand" the piece as well as they "understand" many of their favourite non-lit works of art.

I found "how to write a poem" by John Redmond (Blackwell, 2006) useful. It's an introductory text that aims to train readers for Jori Graham poems rather than the old poems that most introductory books tackle.

I find Ruth Padel's books ("52 Ways of Looking at A Poem", "The Poem and the Journey") useful too - less radical than Redmond's book, but she tries to explain poems by Geoffrey Hill, Prynne, etc. Even if you don't like her comments you get a useful poetry anthology.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Litrefs. Another one worth considering is The Enthusiasts Field Guide to Poetry. If you live in the UK there are copies on Amazon for as little as 45p + postage which is my kind of price.

I think part of the problem with readers is lack of trust in their own abilities to understand a poem. They work out what it means for them and then they’re looking for validation: Did I get it right?

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