There are a number of different schools of poetry. One I’ve been wondering about for a while has been the School of Quietude but I’ve never been able to find a decent definition until now. In his blog, Seth Abramson writes extensively about the subject before trying to present a potted definition. This is what he came up with:
In short, the School of Quietude is simply this:
The belief, as exhibited in and by certain contemporary poems, that the near-totality of words in an individual poem should be employed in such a way as to utilize exclusively their transcendent rather than immanent meaning.
To the extent this proclivity, as to word usage, commonly generates a poem whose individual on-the-page "marks" constitute merely an "echo" of the visualisable universe of matter the poem evokes, the actual words of the poem may be considered Quiet.
They are Quiet in the sense that they are not permitted their full expression as "words-qua-words," but instead remain merely signifiers of a series of referents whose acknowledgment, comprehension, and internalization is the most important work of the poem.
This article is not really about the School of Quietude, but that is not what has piqued my interest so much as something Abramson says in attempting to define it. The guy’s a lawyer and so that’s why the definition is a bit on the convoluted side. Assuming his definition is accurate – which I am going to do – then I find I have a problem with it: I’m not sure I agree with anyone who suggests that you can only expect someone to read a work transcendentally. Well, you can expect them to. I’m just not sure it’s possible.
Before we go on we need to understand two words: immanent and transcendent. In the same article, Abramson says:
The greatest divide in poetry, by far, of the past hundred years has been between poets who treat language as a locus for imminent meaning and those who treat it as a locus for transcendent meaning.
It’s a typo but one that caused me (and others) a lot of confusion because ‘imminent’ is not the same as ‘immanent’:
Imminence: The quality or condition of being about to occur
immanence, 1. Existing or remaining within; inherent: believed in a God immanent in humans. 2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
The two terms are actually religious expressions. According to Wikipedia:
Immanence, derived from the Latin in manere – "to remain within" – refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence, which hold that some divine being or essence manifests in and through all aspects of the material world. It is usually applied in monotheistic, pantheistic, or panentheistic faiths to suggest that the spiritual world permeates the non-spiritual, and often contrasts the idea of transcendence.
In religion, transcendence is a condition or state of being that surpasses physical existence and in one form is also independent of it. Although transcendence is defined as the opposite of immanence, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive
The way I understand them is in music terms. If you go to a piano and hit the A above middle C you expect to hear a single note. Let’s call it a monotone. Early synthesisers were monophonic. They could only produce one note at a time. A piano is polyphonic – you can play chords. The fact is that if you hit the A above middle C the sound that you hear is not as simple as you think it is. It contains overtones. The pitch of the A above middle C is 440Hz, i.e. 440 vibrations per second. At the same time you’ll also hear the 1st overtone (880Hz), the 2nd (1320Hz), the 3rd (1760Hz) and so on. Sound is more complex than it first . . . er, sounds.
I don’t ‘hear’ the overtones . . . well, I do hear some of them but not on a conscious level . . . but I can do the maths and work them out. I may not be able to perceive them but I can conceive them. The way I understand “immanent meaning” is that it’s the first thing we are hit with, the fundamental note; the “transcendent meanings” are like overtones. So we have a sound, a basic meaning, and then we have overtones which not everyone hears and those are the hidden meanings starting with simple metaphors and moving through personal connections.
For example, it’s not that uncommon an expression in Scotland to say that someone’s “away the Crow Road” meaning that he’s died. Residents of Partick, Broomlands, Jordanhill, Anniesland and those who’ve read the book or watched the television dramatisation of Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road will also know there’s an actual Crow Road in the west end of Glasgow. Only I know that my dad and I walked up it when I returned to Glasgow about fifteen years ago. So anyone reading my poem ‘A Drink Up the Crow Road’ which I wrote on the anniversary of my father’s death will probably get some of the “true meaning” of the piece but I doubt anyone would see the irony in the piece: my dad and I never went for a drink together, despite living in Scotland where it would be an everyday occurrence for a father to take his son for a pint, we never did. In fact the only time we ever had a drink together was when I made some homebrew and he tried some. Lethal stuff it was too. More importantly there are no pubs on that stretch of Crow Road.
Crow Road viewed from Partick
What though is the immanent meaning of “Crow Road”? What about the people who live on or near Crow Road in North Walsham or the Crow Road in Spittal or Keswick or the one in San Antonio even? Meaning is like energy. Words on a page have potential meaning. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a more accurate way of putting it than ‘immanent’ but I find it easier to understand. Once the words get into our heads they become kinetic, alive; they react with and respond to the environment in which they find themselves. But no matter where they end up, unless it’s in the mind of someone who doesn’t speak English, the first obstacle the reader will have to get over is what the words ‘crow’ and ‘road’ mean: a crow is a big black bird and a road is, generally speaking, a public way. They might think that I’m talking about a straight road because that’s how crows fly and the fact is that Glasgow’s Crow Road is quite straight apart from the section my dad and I walked up.
So what’s the difference between perception and conception? In poetic terms we see a word like ‘crow’ and we think ‘big black bird’ because that’s what it is. Ask a kid what a crow is and that’s what they’ll tell you. It’s a big black bird. That’s what we see. We don’t see ‘Corvidae’ or ‘passerine’ but what we have learned and experienced forms our conception of what it means to be a crow. A member of the Crow Nation will view the bird quite differently to me. As would a Buddhist. Or a Korean. Language is reductive. It reduces an object to its basic elements.
In his book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson uses the terms “embodied meaning and immanent meaning to emphasis those deep-seated bodily sources of human meaning that go beyond the merely conceptual and propositional.” He says:
If we reduce meaning to words and sentences (or concepts and propositions), we miss or leave out where meaning really comes from. We end up intellectualising human experience, understanding and thinking and we turn processes into static entities or properties. (p.11)
I learn things through my body. Crow Road is not simple the name of a rather long road in Glasgow. I have experienced Crow Road over many years. I have travelled up and down it in cars, in vans and on public transport. I have walked much of the length of it, mostly alone but not always. In addition to my father I’ve walked along it with my wife and my daughter but not my mother. I’ve written poems on it. I’ve carried shopping up it. I found a photo of a woman on it that I still keep in my wallet. I’ve had an asthma attack on it. When my mother died Carrie and I took a mirror into an antique shop there to see if it was worth anything and ended up leaving it there and forgetting about it. I’ve lived in flats on both sides of it. Crow Road means something to me and that meaning is built up of more than simple facts. I can feel Crow Road under my feet. I have a physical and emotional and intellectual connection with Crow Road.
The Crow Road in the poem is an imaginary place though. It’s where the conversation my dad and I ought to have had before he died happens; the poem was written a year after his death. A pragmatist would quite rightly jump on that point:
A DRINK UP THE CROW ROAD
(for my dad who died a year ago today)
Come on in lad, come in.
You'll take a drink won't you?
It's an unusual brand of truth –
I think you'll like it.
Mind, it's an acquired taste,
a bit on the bitter side.
Just sip it to start with
or it'll give you the heartburn.
That's my boy!
Happy anniversary son.
Wednesday, 11 December, 1996
The father in the poem is also imaginary. That’s not how my dad talked, not his phraseology at all. I don’t think he ever called me ‘my boy’ or ‘lad’ in his life; he called me his son but ‘son’ as an endearment was not one of his either. He did suffer from heartburn quite badly. It was years before I experienced it myself which took a bit of the romance out of the expression.
For me the meaning in this poem is one that transcends the actual marks on the page. They don’t contain my meaning. They evoke it. They are a record of something that never happened. There is nothing to perceive. That said I do superimpose the feeling of sitting in a pub but no specific pub just a common-or-garden working man’s pub. Imagination is a projection of experience.
When I ask most people what my poems mean I’m generally met with an awkward silence. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In his book Mark Johnson makes this point about meaning:
One of the greatest impediments to an appreciation of the full scope of embodied meaning is the way philosophers of language focus almost exclusively on language (i.e. spoken and written words and sentences) as the bearer of meaning. Anything that doesn’t conform to this linguistic model is defined, by fiat, as not part of meaning proper. This language-centred prejudice leads many philosophers to overlook the deepest roots of meaning. (p.209)
I’m a writer. I work exclusively with words. And one of the first things I look for in any poem is meaning. What I have to recognise is that the resultant meaning that a piece of writing produces in me is not something that can quickly be reconverted into words. Water can be turned into vapour with ease but try getting that vapour back into the kettle afterwards. It’s everywhere, on the outside of the kettle, on the walls, the windows, even inside you. But it’s still H2O.
I gave a collection of poems to a family friend once and she handed it back to me with very little comment other than the fact she’d kept one of the poems because it meant something to her. She didn’t tell me what. Not because she was keeping anything from me. She simply didn’t have the words to express what the poem meant to her.
Question: Is a text there to be understood or interpreted? He’s a good example:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel. (Genesis 3:15).
Most Christians accept that verse as a prophecy, the first mention of the Messiah. It’s not what it says but it is what it means. Do you think Adam and Eve realised that? Who knows. Was God even talking to them? (Actually if you read verse 14 he’s addressing the serpent.) And even if they did have an inkling do you think they imagined he was talking about thousands of years in the future?
1. (tr) to clarify or explain the meaning of; elucidate
2. (tr) to construe the significance or intention of to interpret a smile as an invitation
3. (tr) to convey or represent the spirit or meaning of (a poem, song, etc.) in performance
The thing about Biblical prophecies is that they are open to interpretation. Some even have multiple interpretations having minor and major fulfilments. I think poetry is like that, an obvious or at least fairly obvious meaning, something you can take away from a superficial read, and then there’s the deeper meaning that only comes after you’ve fully assimilated the piece.
This is perhaps one of the reasons I’ve struggled with . . . let’s just call it hard poetry. I’ve not allowed myself time to live with it. Meaning is not a constant. Anything can take on new meanings. I remember a song called ‘Drive’ by The Cars. It was famously used as part of the Live Aid concert in 1985, as the background music to a montage of clips showing poverty-stricken Africa. Now, when most people my age hear that song that is what we associate it with. The song’s original meaning has been subverted. This was a very melancholy song written from the perspective of a guy who's watching a woman (who he presumably used to date) "going down the tubes," trying to get her to take a hard look at what's going on in her life. It’s nothing to do with starving kids. Or is this a case of transcendent meaning? I don’t think so. It’s just what Pavlov did to his dogs: they heard a bell and got food, we heard ‘Drive’ and got images of starving kids. But someone somewhere thought to pair up the video and the song. That someone saw more in the song than was there. For him (or her) the meaning transcended to another level. Or they might have just thought it was a cool song to go over that film and just the right length too.
As a writer I can’t say it doesn’t concern me how people read my poems although I suspect I’m more concerned by how we all read poetry. Or that might be read in general. I am continually bombarded by information. It’s not always text-based but much of it is. Most of the poetry I read these days is online and I wonder how much time I give to these pieces because that’s probably how much time others devote to my poems. They read ’em and move on. Do any of us live with poems? This is where I believe the Internet does us no favours because we don’t go back to stuff. We read ’em and move on, read ’em and move on. That’s one of the reasons I wish people would buy my book of poetry, not to make me rich – you all know I’m never going to be rich – but because I think if people have my poetry around for more than the few seconds it takes to read one online they might start to see beyond the words on the page. Whether they’ll have a transcendent experience, well…
My mum was fond of saying, “You are what you eat,” which means when she died she was probably 55% water and 45% microwave chips. I don’t recall she ever told me to chew my food properly but she probably did. She certainly told me to eat my greens. I think what I’m saying here is that to get the most meaning out of our poems we need to chew them properly. Picking good poems to nibble on in the first place is important too but I think that’s probably a topic for discussion another time.