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Thursday, 21 October 2010

Precision poetry

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Say what you mean and mean what you say. — Anon



Raymond Carver’s 1981 breakout book was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Largely as a result of that collection, which became a literary sensation, Carver was credited with popularising a minimalist style. It was not a title he appreciated. According to Tess Gallagher, he "preferred the more accurate identification of his style as that of a ‘precisionist.’”[1] Carver explains the reason he hates the label "minimalist" as follows:

That word brings up associations with narrow vision and limited ability. It’s true that I try to eliminate every unnecessary detail in my stories and try to cut my words to the bone. But that doesn’t make me a minimalist. If I were, I’d really cut them to the bone. But I don’t do that; I leave a few slivers of meat on them.[2]

Precisionism wasn’t an expression I was familiar with. So I decided to investigate. It turns out that it began life as an artistic rather than a literary movement:

The term Precisionism itself was first coined in the early 1920s. Influenced strongly by Cubism and Futurism, its main themes included industrialization and the modernization of the American landscape, which were depicted in precise, sharply defined, geometrical forms. There is a degree of reverence for the industrial age in the movement, but social commentary was not fundamental to the style. The degree of abstraction in the movement ranged considerably (Sheeler's work was sometimes almost photorealistic).[3]

Elsie Driggs, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Herman Trunk and Georgia O'Keeffe were all prominent Precisionists. Of the five, Hopper is by far my favourite.


hopper-sun-empty-room

'Sun empty room' by Hopper


But let’s go back to Carver for a minute. In his essay ‘On Writing’ Carver wrote:

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine — the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.[4]

william_carlos_williams The most obvious example of what Carver is talking about also owes a debt of thanks to another artistic movement: Impressionism. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, as it has come to be known (the poem originally only carried the title ‘XXII’, denoting its place within the anthology Spring and All), was written by William Carlos Williams quickly from all accounts, apparently in less than five minutes, in exactly the same way that an Impressionist artist would hastily capture a fleeting moment. It differs in that it presents the scene in a simple, stark, unadorned manner. It focuses on the objective representation of an object, in line with the Imagist philosophy that was only ten years old at the time of the poem's publication. It should be noted that Williams had met the American photographer-painter, Charles Sheeler, shortly before composing the poem.


The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about this poem. It’s difficult to view it objectively any more. For me anyway. I can’t unknow, for example, that he was working as a paediatrician at the time and that while caring for a poorly child at the child's home he happened to look out of the window and saw the wheelbarrow. The poem says nothing about that. I very much doubt, however, that Williams sat down and thought to himself: I’m to write an Imagistic-Precisionist poem today. He wrote a poem and people have read much into it.

A more obvious connection between the Imagism of Williams and Precisionism began with this poem:


The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

In his Autobiography, Williams wrote:

Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.

Charles Demuth, whom Williams had met and befriended “over a dish of prunes at Mrs Chain’s boarding house on Locust Street”[5] based his famous painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold on the Williams poem.


I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed out the poem’s larger meaning and where, perhaps, the painting falls short:

In the case of 'The Great Figure' I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' (sic) in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist.

All the above leads me to wonder how precisely these two poems were worded. Did Williams say precisely what he wanted to at the time? I believe he did. I also think he thought about what he’d written after the fact and the poems came to mean more than he had originally intended them to.

The Precisionist movement had a particular interest in industrial or mechanical subjects and had roots in Italian Futurism, a movement that also respected the beauty and power of machinery. Williams had a similar view of poetry:

A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.[6]

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.[7]

Here, of course, “the machine” is held up as some sort of ideal. The problem with ideals is that they can be improved upon. When the telephone dial was first patented in 1896 I bet everyone thought it was ideal. And it was until the 1970s with the advent of the Touch-Tone system. Precision is a relative term. We can measure things in microns nowadays. But there’s a point where it’s impossible to tell the difference. Could you tell the difference between a line 0.5mm thick and one 0.45mm thick with the naked eye?

Marianne_Moore_1935 Comparing poets to artists is nothing new. Williams underlined the connection himself. In an interview with Walter Sutton, Williams said explicitly "I've attempted to fuse the poetry and painting to make it the same thing."[8] And he’s not the only poet where one can draw parallels. Take Marianne Moore, for example, a contemporary of his. She actually has a poem which includes the word ‘precisionist’ referring to writers (specifically letter writers) and not artists:


I learn that we are precisionists
not citizens of Pompeii arrested in action
as a cross-section of one’s correspondence would seem to imply.
Renouncing a policy of boorish indifference
to everything that has been said since the days of Matilda,
I shall purchase an etymological dictionary of modern English
That I may understand what is written,
and like the ant and the spider,
returning from time to time to headquarters,
shall answer the question
“why do I like winter better than summer?”

(from ‘Bowls’)[9]

Is Moore a Precisionist? Perhaps, but with a small p. Like Williams, with whom she corresponded, she began as an Imagist but if you want to link her with the word precision it would need to be via the word revision. She was a terrible one for reworking her poems. For example her poem ‘Poetry’ began life with twenty-nine lines and was finally whittled down to a mere three. She believed in precision. In an article entitled ‘Feeling and Precision’ she wrote:

Precision is both impact and exactitude, as with surgery.[10]

In ‘Bowls’ Moore insists that the goal of modernist art is not mere novelty, but exacting expression – an attention to meticulous utterance that, in her view, is clearly not the purview of any one time period or any one artistic school. ... The creation of lasting poetry will always be a matter of using exactly the right word in exactly the right place to achieve a precisely regulated effect.[11]

Interestingly, Darlene Erickson’s book on Moore is entitled, Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. The title comes from a poem entitled ‘Armor's Undermining Modesty’:


Even gifted scholars lose their way
through faulty etymology.
No wonder we hate poetry,
and new stars and harps and the new moon. If tributes cannot
be implicit,

give me diatribes and the fragrance of iodine,
the cork oak acorn grown in Spain;
the pale-ale-eyed impersonal look
which the sales-placard gives the bock beer buck.
What is more precise than precision? Illusion.

Er, no it’s not. So what is she on about?

Moore distrusts facts because they rarely correspond to their appearance. When she states, “What is more precise than precision? Illusion”, she argues that precision has no place in a world of ever-changing facts. Instead, it must work within the field of the imagination, where the notion of the thing is more important than the physical reality of the thing. Moore does not totally disregard fact and the senses; she subordinates them to imagination and makes them stimuli for the imaginative process. The factual and the sensed gain importance only as catalysts for the imagination; reality becomes that which is insubstantial and which can never be proved.[12]

Actually if you wanted to describe Moore in artistic terms then the word collagist is probably the most appropriate choice. She literally cut the words she wanted to use “from a wide variety of sources, from magazines and literary texts and textbooks, or critical, scholarly, and biographical essays, to advertisements, travel brochures, government pamphlets, business documents; from important public speeches to random overheard speeches or snatches of conversation (often with her mother).”[13] Can you think of anything more precise?


Marianne Moore

'Marianne Moore' by Ray Johnson

There can be few poets though whose name is synonymous with precise writing, “relentless accuracy”, as she once put it. “Precision is a thing of the imagination,” she wrote.

Robert Phillips, writing about Moore in a poem[14], said:


On the bookshelf
her poems tick like quartz crystals,
precise as the world’s exactest clock.

The final three-line version of ‘Poetry’ ended up like this by the way:


I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I spent a long time looking at this poem and the quote about precision and illusion. A long time. And I kept struggling to reconcile these in my head. These couple of lines from The Norton Anthology of Poetry helped:

Her definitions aren't logical, but that's because poetry isn't completely logical either. ‘Poetry’ is about fitting real stuff into a space made out of words. For Marianne Moore, that's what a poet has to do, even though it's impossible.[15]

Poems aren’t simply containers for meanings. They are precision instruments specifically designed to stimulate our imaginations; sometimes we can give meaning to where they lead us, sometimes feeling and sometimes they leave us standing on the precipice not knowing whether to step back or take that leap of faith into the unknown. That’s precisely what poems are, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”[16] Because where else do illusions need to happen but in the real world? Anywhere else they’d just be . . . ordinary.

I think a good example of what I think Moore is getting at is this Imagist poem by Ezra Pound:


In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

“In a poem of this sort”, Pound explained, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”[17]

Let us be clear: one cannot write about what we haven’t seen; whether that “seeing” is physical or metaphorical depends on the kind of poet we’re talking about here. I, for example, rarely deal with the physical world in my poems but the point is easier to grasp if you think about it literally. Look at these three stanzas from Williams’ poem ‘To a Solitary Disciple’:


Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its colour
is shell-pink.

Rather observe
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth
as a turquoise.

[...]

Observe
how motionless
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines.

You can read the whole poem here.

The speaker begins by pointing out that to observe the way in which the details that make up the visual field are interrelated is more important than to create fanciful conceits and similes. Precise observation, even if at first it seems mere naming (“Rather observe / that it is early morning”) takes precedence over the poetic “coining of similes,” which is “a pastime of a very low order.”[18]

Although I’ve focused on Moore and Williams the simple fact is that, if you type “precisionist poet” into Google you get no entries at all; “precisionist painter” gives you 2850 entries and “precisionist artist”, 736. The Wikipedia article mentions no writers whatsoever. I seemed to be coming up against a brick wall.

Ron Silliman What first piqued my curiosity was something Ron Silliman mentioned in one of his posts:

Some of the New Precisionists whose work I enjoy a great deal these days includes Graham Foust, Joseph Massey & Chris McCreary.[19]

If there are New Precisionists one would expect there to be old ones but, like many of the schools of poetry I run across, pinning them down isn’t so easy but type “precise poetry” into Google and you come up with a few interesting examples: President Obama’s inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (“careful, precise poetry and [an] awareness of history”[20]), JoAnne McFarland (“These are tight poems, lean and pristine. There is clarity of meaning if the reader takes the time to consider the subtext behind the lines.”[21]), John Siddique (“strong, clear and precise poetry of everyday life”[22]) and Blanca Varela (“It’s true that she has not published prolifically, but perhaps this could account for the dense precision of her poems: dense with meanings and precise in her choice of words.”[23])

Are any of these Precisionists with a capital p? I doubt it and I doubt it would matter to them.

A lot of the time I imagine people think that precise means concise. It can. And a lot of the time it does. I’d like to think that most of the time my poems could be described using both adjectives. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it well: "Prose is words in their best order; Poetry is the best words in their best order." I think a precisionist would take a view that poetry should present the only words possible in the only possible order. What says more: the few lines of a tightly written poem or a volume of analytical comments on it?

I’ve said before that I think poets, indeed all writers, should say what they have to say and get off the page. It’s still a view I hold dear. I only write posts the length I do because I don’t have the time needed to trim them, not if I want to keep up with the posting schedule I’ve imposed on myself. In every other aspect of my writing I weigh every word carefully. I used to obsess about it. Oscar Wilde once said; "I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out." That used to be me. I wouldn’t finish poems for weeks because they did not meet my exacting standards. And then one day I realised that I was obsessing. And I stopped. I still aim to be precise, at the very least concise, but life is too short and I have too much to write to fret about every single word.

One last thought: what does precision mean? We’ve been talking about it for the last 3000 words and I bet we all thought we knew what it means, a synonym of accurate or exact. The precision of a measurement system, also called reproducibility or repeatability, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results. Since a poem is a response to a unique set of conditions it’s impossible to write the same poem twice. Its precision has to be taken on trust.



FURTHER READING


Hiromi Hashimoto, ‘Trying to Understand Raymond Carver's Revisions’, Tokai English Review, No. 5 (December 1995), pp. 113-147

Bonnie M. Emerick, ‘The Mentoring Relationships Among Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov’, Parataxis, Spring 2003

‘The Art of Poetry No 4: Marianne Moore’, The Paris Review

‘The Art of Poetry No 6: William Carlos Williams’, The Paris Review

REFERENCES


[1] Tess Gallagher, ‘Carver Country’, Carver Country, p.18

[2] Hansmaarten Tromp, ‘Any Good Writer Uses His Imagination to Convince the Reader’, Conversations with Raymond Carver, p.72

[3] The Precisionist View, The Art History Archive

[4] Carver, ‘On Writing’, Fires, p.24

[5] Henry Geldzahler, ‘Numbers in Time: Two American Paintings’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 23, No. 8, American Painting (Apr., 1965), p.295

[6] William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays, p.256

[7] William Carlos Williams, from Authors Introduction to The Wedge

[8] Peter Halter, The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, p.171

[9] Marianne Moore, Complete Poems, p.59

[10] Marianne Moore, ‘Feeling and Precision’, Sewanee Review 52 (Autumn 1944)

[11] Marianne Moore, Robin G. Schulze, Becoming Marianne Moore: the early poems, 1907-1924, p.492

[12] Katharine Elaine Soles, Skepticism, Illusion and Rigourous Observation: Marianne Moore’s Poetic Pursuit of Hope, pp.59,60

[13] Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and Criticism, 1900-1950, pp.270,271

[14] Robert Phillips quote taken from the poem ‘Late Reading’ which appears in Spinach Days

[15] ‘Marianne Moore’, The Norton Anthology of Poetry

[16] From the long version of ‘Poetry’

[17] Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, p.89

[18] Peter Halter, The Revolution In The Visual Arts And The Poetry of William Carlos Williams, pp.60,61

[19] Ron Silliman’s blog entry for Friday 28th May 2010

[20] ‘Elizabeth Alexander’, Poetry Foundation

[21] Mike Ugulini, review of Fossil Fuel: Poems, Curled Up With A Good Book

[22] And Croft, The Prize, review, The Morning Star

[23] Gwen MacKeith, ‘Blanca Varela’, The Poetry Translation Centre

18 comments:

Poet in Residence said...

Jim,
I have to dash out but you or your blog visitors might like to enter the words 'Raymond Carver' in my search box. Back later. Maybe with a poem on the hoof? Or at least on the tram.
Gwilym

Ruth said...

Well I can't thank you enough for this most excellent essay. I've had a sort of crisis of identity in the last couple of days, poetically speaking (read that how you will, but widely please). Your timing is perfect for me, today, precisely.

I'll think more about it, after this read, about WCW and Moore, and that favorite-of-mine anecdote of Wilde's. I remember that when I am worrying a poem, and so little seems to be accomplished.

There is a new-ish style of poetics that I am trying to decide how I feel about, which has a new kind of flourish. Not the Romantic kind, but a postmodern kind, scattered across the space of the page, in smallish span, but a wide girth of images and words. Amy King comes to mind. But she may not be the best example of what I mean. It can be almost overwhelming, and I'm trying to decide if I like it. I am blown away by it initially, but I feel myself wondering if I am too blown away . . . away from the poem, away from the idea, away from the precision which might feel less weighty, but maybe not less forceful.

But then, perhaps it is only a matter of taste. I quite like a simple, restrained, yet powerful poem that says what can't be said in regular words.

Poet in Residence said...

So it was like this today. I walked past the house in Vienna where Auden died. And then a bit later I went into a pub that has 2nd hand books to read while you drink. Picked up a book in which there was an interview with Auden. So now I have to bring it all together. There is the skeleton of a poem. Must be. It's just like fire engine no. 5. Things happen. Poets write about them. Use what you find, said Carver. No need the for bardic crisis or composer's collywobbles. Just find the words. And then do it.

vazambam said...

Thanks for this post, Jim.

I have great admiration for Williams and his poetry--he was a trailblazer when most of his contemporaries were cluttering up the highways leading to what they thought was Parnassus. Too bad so many of his myriad emulators got lost trying to follow him.

Marion McCready said...

Really enjoyed this, Jim. It was a relief for me the first time I came across Moore and her collage writing style, it gave me the permission I needed not to force my poems into straightforward narrative structures. I read a quote from someone today (can't remember who) which said basically if you take a pen and score out every other word from your poem it will result in a much more interesting piece of work. Not really about precisionism but it's the same idea of not using excess language in a poem, making every word earn its place.

Art Durkee said...

I've never ever heard O'Keeffe called a Precisionist, so I seriously question that. And I've read all of the major biographies of her, and also her own writings. I imagine she'd reject the label the same way Carver rejected being called a minimalist. I also have the fifty-pound definitive study of Hopper, complete with reproductions of virtually everything he ever painted, and I don't recall the label ever turning up in anything about him, either. Neither Hopper nor O'Keeffe were particularly connected to Futurism in any way, either, not even in terms of subject matter.

So I'm skeptical.

Also, a lot of what I've read about Carver indicates him to be a less than trustworthy narrator about his own life and intentions. Nonetheless, what you quoted from "On Writing" is great stuff, about endowing ordinary things with immense, startling power. I certainly share that viewpoint.

"The Red Wheelbarrow" is one of the most written about poems of the past century, right up there with "The Wasteland." I agree that people have read far more into that poem, over the years, than WCW likely ever intended. It's been used to justify a lot of literary -isms over the years, some quite contradictory.

As for Silliman's "New Precisionists" most of his formulations, especially the -isms he coins, are rhetorical devices to support his arguments, his taxonomies about contemporary poetry—themselves highly controversial—and his cheerleading for the experimental poetries he likes. Almost everything Ron describes in terms of taxonomies is set up as an Us vs. Them, "Us" always being the things he approves of or likes. This strikes me as another of his invented taconomies, with nothing behind it at all.

I agree that poetry is the best words in the best order. But we can't equate with either precision OR concision, since sometimes the best words in the best order require expansiveness and sideways thinking. If a poem reflects a state of consciousness, rather than being just precise descriptions of things, consciousness can be messy and non-linear, and so might the poem be. Marianne Moore's poetry is highly artificed, highly unnatural, in that sense.

And I agree with your wise words that having standards that are too exacting leads directly to being obsessive. (Most of the writers looking for -isms in WCW's poetry were far more obsessive than he himself was.) So I agree with your conclusions, although I remain skeptical of many of the sources you found.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ruth, that’s an interesting way of putting it, being blown away from a poem. My gut reaction to that is that you need to live a while with a poem before you truly appreciate it – just like people. A lot of relationships start off with a bang – everything’s new and exciting – but when the patina of novelty wears thin then you realise what you have. And you’re right, there are clever, witty poems out there but there’s nothing there but, to use your word, a flourish.

Taste is another thing. Tastes change. Mine certainly have over the years. And I’m always keen to try out new things to see if I can acquire a taste for them. I’m not very successful but just because I’m a bit long in the tooth doesn’t stop me trying.

Gwilym, a man after my own heart. I have always been keen to demystify poetry. I don’t like mysteries. Of course there are things in nature we have yet to fully understand but where would science be if everyone took the it’s-a-mystery stance; we’d still be believing in magic. Poetry is wonderful but it’s not magical. It’s just one word following another that shift in and out of focus making sense, not making sense, then making a different kind of sense.

Vazambam, yes, Williams was a major influence on me too. He was the first poet I discovered on my own after leaving school. I know they had a curriculum to adhere to but it was really appalling just how little poetry they covered, literally one American poem that I can remember and that was covered by a student teacher. My knowledge of American poetry is still very sketchy.

Marion, I like that quote. It reminds me of something the composer Holst said. He recommended that young composers go through their work with a rubber once they thought they’d finished and erase all the extraneous notes. When I look back on my earliest poems the first thing you would note is their length. I just go on and on.

And, Art, as you can tell this was an investigative article. I started knowing next-to-nothing and now I know a little something. I like learning about –isms but I can live not being a part of one. I suspect they’ve had their day, all bar individualism. I liked the Imagists. What I liked about them was they laid down a set of rules/guidelines so that I could hold one of their poems beside it and say, “Yup, that poem meets the criteria laid down here so I guess it must be an Imagist poem.” I find I can’t do that with most of the other schools of poetry. I can look at a Cubist painting and tick the boxes as I can with Impressionist or Abstract Expressionist. You can define these approaches to painting.

My personal interest in –isms as far a poetry goes is an ongoing search to find better ways to say things. It’s like photography: colour, black and white, infrared, x-ray – all look at the same things but only present subsets; not one of the reveals the whole truth. Likewise poetry, every poem is a subset of the truth and that’s how we come to terms with truth by not trying to swallow it all in a oner. An x-ray is the perfect way to present a certain truth and my poems are also perfect for the purposes for which they were written, most anyway. I would like to be able to express more but I can only work with the ‘equipment’ I have available to me. I couldn’t write a Language poem if you paid me. Even as an exercise.

Poet in Residence said...

Entering 'Edward Hopper' in my search box will produce a bunch of short poems (over 2 pages) about his paintings. To the post Edward Hopper (2) there are some short and apposite comments.
Gwilym
ps- Jim, this saves me writing my Carver/Hopper points-of-view allover again. Hope this is OK. Those who are interested to know will take the trouble to look. The height of laziness on my part, you needn't tell me. I've been told often enough.
Best,
gwilym

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Gwilym. I particularly enjoyed 'office at night' because you talk about them appearing to work, not necessarily actually working. Hopper as you will probably know loved looking in people's windows and what you see in that second or two can only ever be an appearance, something we can read into. I saw a great documentary about him a couple of weeks ago. Nice to see him and his wife interviewed.

Brent Robison said...

I enjoyed this post a lot, Jim, and learned stuff. I think you would appreciate my friend Djelloul Marbrook's poems, which I think of as precise and concise. Here's his award-winning book: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

And you may enjoy his latest blog post as well:
http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com/2010/10/21/poems-that-test-the-limits-of-words/

Art Durkee said...

I don't really agree that every poem is a subset of the truth. I think that some poems, and some kinds of poems, get at being subsets of A truth. One of the tenets of postmodernism is that there is no THE truth, but lots of individual truths; which are sometimes in cognitive dissonance or open conflict. I find it hard to believe in THE truth, although I have encountered plenty of individual truths.

LangPo for example is just another -ism, because it is openly driven by theory. You can't be avant-garde, apparently, without having written a manifesto and having a theory to espouse. It's certainly possible to match up poems of a particular -ism with the theoretical criteria evoked by the -ism, but I question if that's what poetry really is about. Is it just engineering? Is it just paint by numbers? I dispute that.

Having said all that, I also agree that poems can lead to finding parts of certain truths. I certainly would never say that poetry is purposeless, or not worth turning towards purpose. Actually, one of my principal objections to the contemporary avant-garde is that it IS purposeless, hermetic, and insular. It doesn't engage the world; it becomes the worst form of inward navel-gazing. A lot of LangPo does this explicitly, stating it as a positive value. I don't agree, but then, I'm not required to, nor do I expect the LangPoets to care what I think.

Yet it seems to me that what poems can get at is the truths found in the body and heart, and not only in the intellect. Limiting poetry to the intellect and its games doesn't seem to me to be a service to poetry, or to humanity.

Dave King said...

An excellent post, on which I am still chewing. One detail about which I am not certain is the association between precisionism and impressionism. I would have put them down as opposites. The imagists, yes - but impressionists.

Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism came into my mind a few times, but maybe you covered that with Futurism.

Excellent. I have not finished with it yet.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Brent. I’ve already had a look at Djelloul’s poetry (and I watched an interview with him too). I enjoyed his latest post too. Now that’s the kind of book review I like to read.

Art, I suppose it depends on how you define ‘subset of truth’. As far as I’m concerned when anyone puts two words on a page side by side it’s only human nature to look for truth in them and since any meaning a poem may have for us comes from within us (in that respect poems contain neither truth nor meaning) if a poem contains no truth it’s because we’re incapable of seeing any in it. It was an off-the-cuff remark. I wouldn’t make too much of it.

Some engineering is quite, quite beautiful. I have always liked machines and tools even if I’ve never been very good at using them. Williams talked about poems as machines. Whether you regard that as a disparaging remark depends on what you think of machinery. My dad was a mechanic for his whole life, not cars so much rather big machines, and he loved to see them running smoothly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

All any school of poetry does is restrict the palette. But that’s all any school of art or music has done, set up a list of criteria and tried to make great art within those confines. I get that. From a poetic point of view it’s just a complicated writing prompt.

And, Dave, I wasn’t trying to link the two. Williams sat down and wrote a poem. He dashed it off in a few minutes like an Impressionist and as it happened the words he used were carefully chosen, like a precisionist. He never sat down to write a Precisionist-poem or even an Impressionistic-poem, he just wrote a poem and it’s people who’ve come after him that have tried to say what kind of poem is was and made far too much of it. When talking about his poem ‘The Great Figure’ he uses the word ‘impression’ when he’s describing the inspiration for the piece that that’s with a small ‘i’ not a capital one.

litrefs said...

New material for me to digest again. Thanks.

When I write (and at workshops) I use the principle that less is more, that extra words dilute the effect. My formula used to be Power=Content/Wordcount. But I'm less ruthless than I used to be. My feeling now is that the effect of a piece can be diluted if it takes the reader ages to understand it. Consequently I think it's ok to make the piece longer if that means it can be read/understood faster. Such a piece is more efficient (though perhaps not more precise).

In some review I once read, it said that the writer "never used two words when one would nearly do". I used to be more like that writer than I am now.

McGuire said...

Came across the 'wheel barrow' poem quite a lot recently. I enjoy it. Just an image, and the brooding sense of something else beyond it.

Precision is something I was diametrically opposed to, or so I thought, for a long time. I prefered to write in a chaotic, dishevelled manner, largely out of laziness, but also out of a desire to be obedient to the spontanoues surge of thoughts and images that came to my mind.

Now, I have developed a greater care for being precise, for being careful. Not simply splashing down any old gibber, but taking more care, to render something that is clear and precise.

Charles Simic, and Billy Collins, are minimalists poet, or poets who can be described as minimalist after the fact (the fact of reading them) but Simic differs in that his images are often surrealist, and even then, juxtaposed between everyday, common scenes. The words precisionist, minimalist, can become a bit of a semantic game. Minimalist aims to say the most with the least. Precision aims to say what needs to be said without surplus wordage. They both have an aim that is, possibly, the exact same.

Not been about much, Jim. Moved to Edinburgh, laptop was broken, for months, just got a new one. Still writing away. Will be back on Blog in new future/ Plus, will have review of your poetry.

Keep up the research.

Colin.

Art Durkee said...

Italo Calvino writes in Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

“Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.”

Jim Murdoch said...

I see where you’re coming from Litrefs and I don’t disagree. Like everything it’s finding the balance. Me, I have a short memory. If by the end of a poem I can’t remember the beginning then I don’t see the point. Why I don’t have this problem with prose I don’t know. I suspect it’s because wit prose I’m only looking to get the gist anyway whereas with poetry I’m conditioned to trying to wring as much meaning out of every word and wear myself out reading longer pieces.

And McGuire! I wondered where you’d buggered off to. Well, Edinburgh seems to have a more active poetry scene that Glasgow so I hope you make the most of it. I think as far as any creative endeavour goes you need to so what’s natural for you. Your ‘gibber’ – great word – is a part of you, your style, so gibber away, just tidy up the stuff before you present it to the world as a finished product, don’t try and shoehorn yourself into a style that’s not you. On the whole I think you’re fairly concise – not many of your pieces waffle and they are your weaker pieces generally – but as for precise, it’s a concept I struggle with anyway because a poem is only going to be as good as its readers and, yes, every now and then you’ll get a reader who’s the perfect fit for your poem but how often is that going to happen? Mostly we make do and muddle through. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on my poems when you get round to them. No rush.

Ken Armstrong said...

I found this. :)

I also found (here) a statement I agree with, from Carver:

"It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power."

I think I sort-of aspire to that.

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