“Denotation and the Mind at Play”

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woodcock Although I lack the commitment to neo-platonism and romanticism that leads readers and writers to believe that the poem on the page is inevitably (as Ben Lerner suggests in The Hatred of Poetry)   a failure, a lesser poem (you can’t say “thing” here) than the poem in the mind (which would provide the reader with a remarkable and sublime transcendent experience), I do believe the construction of a sound, engaging, vital poem involves a variety of ingredients, some semantic, some psychological, and it might be a few ticks short of life-transforming but still be an amazing and moving experience.  These ingredients include energy, concentration/ reflection, craft, timing, patience, passion and luck.  I know these categories are not an exclusive list and that there’s some overlap, but I don’t want to exhaust myself before I even get going.  I also realize that “luck” is the wild card here and might lead some to say that it’s the muse by another name or “divine inspiration/intervention,” maybe even the devil’s whisper.  For me, these other factors create a field of frisson that might just add up to inspiration, but I don’t believe that a poem is constructed in some theater of the mind where it is ideal and “genuine” (capable of transcendence), but sours and spoils and diminishes in the process of transcription.  It’s easy to see why I’m not of that party once you know that I don’t believe poems can “happen” and then be netted by a human before actually being composed, hammered, kissed and cussed out of the individual poet’s experiences and bag of tricks, or that they often “come to” the poet and are written down verbatim.  I reckon that poems are usually conjured touch by touch as each is tested, tasted, weighed, each word conversing with and  influencing the word that will follow and interrogating the ones that came before. No free lunch, as it were.  Is this ALL conscious?  Probably not, but much of it is.  Look at Moore’s earlier (1927) and then later, shorter versions of “Poetry” or Pound’s earlier version of “In the Station of the Metro.”  Hours in the making, most likely.

Lord, that was windy, but I do remember that even in Bede’s story of Caedmon, the herdsman adds to the poem he’s been given by someone ethereal (quidam) before he performs it for his tribe, so even the great early model of ex machina or ex divina is compromised, amended, sweated, edited.  This belief has caused me some trouble, as a close friend, A, used to insist that another friend, B, had the soul of a poet and would be a poet in the most important sense even if B never wrote a single poem.  Seems she had the soul of a poet, and I suspected that I was being told that B was a better writer than me, even without doing the work.  To that I always replied some version of “aw, skunk cabbage.”  Poets are people who make poems, and most of the time we’re revving our engines, trying to be active and receptive till our internal stick rubbing raises smoke, kindles a spark or two in the tinder, then flame.  You’ve heard the affable cocktail drinker who says, “I’m sure I have a good novel in me, if I just had the time.”  An ultrasound exam will reveal no such item in him.  The same for poems.  For many examples of writers giving some insight into the earthly process of making poems, I recommend Brian Brodeur’s blog How a poem happens.

So I believe poems don’t have to reflect some never-quite-seeable but desperately-striven-for ideal from out yonder.  Most writers (but perhaps not the wanna-be poetalking maneuverers) I know and read would claim more agency, more trial and error and less hocus pocus.  An impulse, some associations, consideration of possible forms or formats, a tune in the head, an attitude, whiz of an errant arrow passing, some dramatic decisions and plenty of more subtle ones – these all help the brain and fingers get some lines onto the page or the monitor.  And then rub those sticks together with wild patience.  They have to be worked, wrested, wrestled in different ways and degrees by different poets or by the same poet on different occasions.  I’m a believer that most of the good writing is rewriting, and a substantial amount of it is simple deletion.  For some, perhaps my view implies that the inspiration  and genuineness just happen more slowly than the idealist seems to suggest, that idealist whose disappointment at the worldly manifestation is at the heart of Lerner’s’s The Hatred of Poetry.  But I don’t think it’s that reducible.  After all, craft is notoriously slow to develop and luck as hard to recognize as it is to attract.

brendanI’m not sure about “things that are important beyond all this fiddle,” to borrow from Moore’s 1927 version of “Poetry,” but I am certain that the poem below passes all my tests for the genuine and deserves better than this treatment as an “exhibit.”  “Pondycherry” rides a series of binaries – clarity and mystery, observation and imagination, the vernacular and the erudite.  It also tells a little story about the craft of the recent past and longer arc of history and sings a song with a formal feel, but no binding formality.  Stanza length, line length, accentual pattern, and the interplay between folk slang and standard vocabulary fortify this reliable, candid, yet bemused “mind at play.”  It’s not a political poem, but we can sense something of the narrator’s value system in his appreciation of skill, economy, “lovely” sensations, not to mention conservation and preservation.  It’s not a confessional poem, but the poet’s interplay of candor and mischief suggests he’s engaged in work that matters to him too much to be mere labor.  Furthermore, the pleasure of surprising and satisfying language accompanies any subtle element of wry sourness (which might “pucker you permanent”) in the stanzas.  And it’s a poem aware of and sensitive to mystery.

Pondycherry      by Brendan Galvin

The way some people sing for themselves
on the drive home, I kept repeating
“pondycherry” out loud, one of those
trivial chunks that pops up,
tangled with the mind’s sargassum,

and wondering where I got it, arrived at
a satiny red-brown wood that came
naturally hollowed from the mill, something
a craftsman might use in his furniture,

an elderly wood-turner and caner of chairs
who worked out of a storefront, its floor
lovely to the nostrils and eyes
with sawdust and woodcurl.

He’d be a local repository who still used
“honeywicket” for flicker, “timberdoodle”
for woodcock. He’d look at
a yard-sale chair, its seat busted
through like a basketball hoop, and say,

“That wood’s pondycherry, used to be
a stand of it the far side of Higgins Pond.
A pleasure to work with, but the fruit
would pucker you permanent.”

Pondicherry, the dictionary gives me,
a former province of French India.
But why should I choose between denotation
and the mind at play, or reject another
hint, from the depths under a word,
that I’ve lived other places, other lives?

(Habitat: New and Selected Poems (LSU, 2005)
National Book Award Finalist

The poem opens with an admission that some might find a little embarrassing – “I say this word over and over like a charm, even though it rose arbitrarily from the mind’s midden.”  It’s an earthy but tricky opening.  “Some people” might do X, I do the quirkier Y.  Yet the narrator shows himself to be kind to those “some,” though with a difference.  He’s using his combination of whim and necessity as an instrument of inquiry, and he employs it to conjure a pleasing fiction, which he sings not just for himself, but for readers, as it’s a fiction with a real life.  The “chunks” that “pop up” may sound inconsequential and messy, but Galvin allows them to do some elegant work, performance, bring to life the Emersonian assertion that words are fossils.

I’m not going to explicate this poem sniff by sniff, but I can’t resist pointing out the pleasure it both recognizes and delivers, the observed or invented  specifics that place us in the world of ponds, fruit, woodgrain, a craftsman, everything admirably local and mysteriously organized as a yard sale.

It’s hard to write a poem so confident and receptive and then shift at the end to nearly obscure information and a far-reaching speculation, but Galvin can do it because he doesn’t change keys, keeps that suggestion of a wink and a grin.  The appearance of “Pondicherry” to mesh with the earlier “pondycherry” creates just the kind of “feat of association” that Frost felt poetry depended upon, and there’s Emerson in that penultimate line and in that sentence the refusal to choose, perhaps between two roads “that equally lay.”

That magpie gathering and whim (which Emerson suggests we carve or paint on our lintels) lead to a serious question, the kind that should be savored rather than pursued for a reductive answer.  On one level, the question is not solved, the poem not resolved, but on others it hovers there before us, interrogating us back while not denying us “the fun in how you say a thing.”  Serious mischief and a sassy tongue.  Who can resist it?  But is it an ideal poem, transporting and rendering the receptive reader altogether changed?  That’s not even the discussion that attracts me.  Instead of being transported, I’d rather be more fiercely rooted to this authentic place underfoot.  So: “a record of a failure” in Lerner’s terms?  “Pondycherry” is an artfully made, surprising and provocative experience, and I’ll take that over either version of Ms. Moore’s “Poetry” most any day.  It haunts me, but does it elevate me to an ideal realm?  Let the philosophers have a go at that one, if they can take their eyes off that honeywicket.  I like this realm, invigorated, just fine.  Now I’m wavering and would not resist the suggestion that this poem is, among other things, sublime.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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