Friday, January 30, 2009

The Beauty of the Husband and poetry's "layered elusiveness"

To say Beauty is Truth and stop.
Rather than to eat it.

But even if beauty is truth, the beautiful person—here, in Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband, "the husband"—may still be a liar, even a compulsive liar. "All parts are liars," Carson quotes the ancient Greeks:

And from the true lies of poetry
trickled out a question.

What really connects words and things?

But it is not the lies of poets that are the issue here, but the lies of the husband:

My husband lied about everything.

And the horror of the compulsive liar is that he cannot recognize his lies as lies (as reported to the narrator by her husband's friend Ray):

Ray please I never lied to her. When need arose I may have used words that lied.

The lie is not in the speaker, then, but in the words, according to this theory. From this perspective, the poet's lies are in the words, too, not in the poet. But this way madness lies, or at least the abyss of irony:

Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony
because this is the look of truth: layered and elusive.

Or beneath the strata of figurative language:

Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws.

Or this:

A cold ship

moves out of harbor
somewhere way inside the wife
and slides off toward the flat gray horizon,

not a bird not a breath in sight.

Or this:

But words

are a strange docile wheat are they not, they bend
to the ground.

Carson's Autobiography of Red is a masterpiece of similes; here, the comparisons are rarer, and metaphor abounds—the poet's "lies" to counteract the husband's, each apparently compulsive, the latter's surely more damaging, as more truly lies. "No doubt you think this a harmless document," the narrator says of the (now ex-)husband's brief letter accompanying Ray's obituary: "Why does it melt my lungs with rage?"


One of the passages quoted above deserves some further consideration:

Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony
because this is the look of truth: layered and elusive.

Or to abbreviate the claim in a perhaps oversimplifying way: "Poets prefer to be layered and elusive." This might provide a tool for understanding differences between poets about what poetry's aims should be.

All poets with any kind of ambition (from Ted Kooser to Ron Silliman, say) want to produce work with several "layers," work that "eludes" the reader in some way ("resists the intelligence almost successfully," as Wallace Stevens put it, though I might be misquoting the phrase). One important difference between poets lies right on the surface: how "elusive" is the immediate sense of the words?

Many poets (and I number myself among them) want the top "layer" of the poems they write to be relatively transparent; their ideal is to create the "elusiveness" of poetry by allowing for further "layers" in the poem that can be explored further on the basis of that initial transparency.

Many other poets (and Dieter M. Gräf, whose work I translate, is surely among them) produce a top "layer" that is in itself elusive. Instead of producing a transparent surface that can be seen through in elusive ways, they produce an opaque surface whose meanings are immediately elusive.

For me, the key issue with the poets whose top "layer" is transparent is whether or not the poem generates any elusive "depth" at all. If all there is to it is the immediate meaning of the words, without any "strata" (whether of irony or of something else), then the poem is a banal failure.

In contrast, for me, the key issue with the poets whose top "layer" is itself elusive is whether or not that immediate "layer" provides any sort of compensation for the absence of such immediacy of meaning, be it musical (metrical energy, alliteration, rhyming), paradoxical (counterintuitive moments, for example), allusive (distorted but recognizable variations on cliches or quotations, say), or formal in the most general sense (Ernst Jandl's "ottos mops," say, whose only vowel is "o").

In either case, if the poem does not offer some kind of immediacy to me, then it cannot draw me into its layers; it cannot lead me to chase down what eludes me. It is not enough for the surface to promise depth; the surface itself needs to make me interested in pursuing whatever depth is there.

That's why—to choose a poet famous for his "obscurity," and one of my favorite poets—I love the poetry of Paul Celan: the surface meaning of a Celan poem may not be immediately apparent, but his poems always offer some sort of immediacy to the reader, as in the opening of "Corona" (with Michael Hamburger's translation):

Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.
Wir schälen die Zeit aus den Nüssen und lehren sie gehn:
die Zeit kehrt zurück in die Schale.

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.

The immediate "meaning" of the lines may, in a narrow sense, be obscure, but the poem offers so much to the reader at an immediate level: the vivid, powerful image of "autumn" seen as an animal eating from the speaker's hand; the alliteration of "frißt" and "Freunde", of "Hand" und "Herbst"; the assonance of "lehren" and "kehrt"; the cyclical quality of the image doubling the cyclical implication of any reference to seasons. I may not immediately know what Celan is talking about, but I am immediately drawn into the poem, and I want to pursue what initially eludes me.

Or to put it another way, I feel something when I read the poem, and the feeling derives from its "immediacies," and the feeling is what makes me want to understand the poem with my intelligence. But as a reader, it's often enough to just be able to feel it, to sense that the poem promises more without necessarily actually pinning down what that more is. And since responses to poems are grounded in feelings (which includes the feelings one has when using one's reason), the "layered elusiveness" of any given poem rarely opens up for all its readers. "From the nuts, we shell time": before we shell a poem, it has to make us want to shell it, and all readers choose different poems to shell. And the best poems of all are like Celan's "time": after we have "taught them to walk," they "return to the shell."


Ron said...

The biggest lie in the world is that words are ever transparent. They are material.

Andrew Shields said...

There are two things wrong with your comment, Ron.

First, there are bigger lies in the world than that one. Still, hyperbole is a time-honored rhetorical figure, so no problem.

Secondly, to deny absolute transparency to language is trivial, but to deny that there are relative degrees of transparency is absurd.

It is the driver
of the shuttle
who is new
to the region.

That's pretty transparent, but the context that it appears in is not.

Donald Brown said...

I'm rather with Ron about transparency. Words always construe some element of the speaker, and what that element is is never transparent.

There are relative degrees, sure, but in a poem there is no transparency worthy of the name. As I see it, it's that illusion of a "transparent meaning" that creates the problem with poems that don't provide it. The person who reads a "transparent meaning" in a poem simply isn't registering the fact that s/he's reading a poem. A poem like Celan's simply begins from the point that such illusory transparency isn't the task of poetry.

The lines you quote, as lines, are not transparent. The statement: "The driver of the shuttle is new to the region" is, assuming that "shuttle" and "region" have obvious referents, otherwise it is still a somewhat mysterious claim. But arranged in lines the words lose that illusion of "prosaic transparency." Which, to me, is the entire purpose of arranging the words in lines: to do away with prosaic reality in favor of poetry!

I enjoyed this entry on Carson's book, which is sitting on my shelf still unread, and which I'd like to get to at some point. If I do, I suspect I'll have some cavils with your points, for I don't believe for a second that "that way madness lies" -- though I like the pun on "lies."

Brian Campbell said...

I enjoyed this discussion of multiple layers of poetry, of accessibility and elusiveness, and what makes the reader want to delve beneath the surface. Clearly, some formulations are more straightforward than others...

Andrew Shields said...

"Transparency" was not a good word to choose, apparently. It's not that important to me, actually.

What I wonder, Don and Ron, is whether you agree that some poems (I'll say poems now instead of poets) are elusive on a first reading, while others are only elusive on further reading.

That risks making the point sound so banal as to be worthless, but to me, it seems fair to say that some poets aim at poems whose elusiveness is immediate, while others aim at poems whose immediacy is not elusive.

To me, poems at both ends of the spectrum can be rewarding, as long as the "straightforward" ones (to use Brian's term) actually produce some "layers" and as long as the less "straightforward" ones provide two things: first, something to draw me in (an "alternative immediacy," if you will), and secondly, something down in the layers of elusiveness that justifies all the elusiveness and all the layering.

Brian Campbell said...

Your last paragraph there is not too transparent, if you ask me. I'll have to search among your layers for that something that justifies all the effort of reading it. ;)

Actually the way you put it suggests to me that "nutcracker" approach to reading poetry that we were all brought up with through high school and beyond: critically crack open the shell of the poem so that the nut -- the "meaning" -- that something down there -- pops out. Yet the enjoyment of experience is in savouring the many dimensions of the poem, as well as the excitement and pleasure of the search itself. I'm sure though, Andrew, you're after not just some meaningful interpretation a la high school, but what we're all after: an "aha" experience, a striking revelation of what it is to be alive.

Donald Brown said...

I guess my problem with this formulation is that it asks me to consider an intention: what poets aim at. I'm really only concerned with the words on the page. If the words refer to verifiable places and weather and certain life forms, etc., fine, but there's nothing obvious about what meaning I take from the experience of this particular arrangement of those words. Which is why I don't get why people are put off by poems that don't give them the same kind of "tangibles." Both give an arrangement of words, and that's what you have to talk about.

It may simply be the case that I always see arrangement in lines as an "estrangement effect." Poems, I believe, are always in an "as if" space. Those who try to make poems as banal as everyday speech can only succeed so far, in my view. And what bores me with them is not that there aren't enough layers, but that mimicry of everyday speech doesn't satisfy me as a working aesthetic.

So, yes, of course some poems are more elusive than others, at least as I read them, but that's true even of poems by the same poet following the same method: Berryman's Dream Songs, for instance. Some I don't "get" at all, some make almost immediate sense to me. I could say the same thing about Stevens and Dickinson and Ashbery. But I wouldn't want to create a continuum of "more elusive" to "less elusive," since even the more elusive poems give me something, I'm just not equipped perhaps to say what.

Andrew Shields said...

I guess whatever I was trying to get at it with my spin on Carson's comment about the "layered and elusive" "truth" of poems is too elusive itself!

As is often the case, maybe it's best to stop talking about poetry and get back to what you both (Brian and Don) emphasize, in different ways: the experience of poems. :-)

Nic Sebastian said...

Thanks for this -- the Beauty of the Husband is one of the verse novels I have waiting to be read. This will bump it up in the queue!

Andrew Shields said...

I'm struck, Nic, by your calling BOTH a verse novel, as to me it did not seem like one. Autobiography of Red is definitely the "novel in verse" that it says it is on its title page, but BOTH seems more like a "sequence" than a "novel."