Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick": Poetry and Paraphrase

The death of Seamus Heaney took me back to this essay I wrote in the late 90s, but never published.

Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick"
I Upend the Rain Stick

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

— Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level

"Upend the rain stick," "upend the stick again," "listen now again": the imperatives in Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick" tell you what to do. If you have a rain stick, you can upend it every time the poem tells you to, comparing rain stick and poem, the first in Heaney's 1996 collection The Spirit Level. The sound it produces is unforeseeable (lines 1-3), but there are names for it (line 4). Figures of speech can characterize your experience (lines 5-6) and the sound which produces that experience (lines 7-8). As what's inside it settles, the last sounds it produces requires a second set of names (lines 9-11). The surprise does not dissipate when you "upend the stick again" (lines 12-14): even when you know what produces the sound (lines 15-16), the miraculousness of the experience remains (lines 17-18) — and you want to "listen now again."

In a 1998 review of a book of critical essays on Heaney's poetry, Roger Caldwell has suggested that such a paraphrase is all that you'll get from a Heaney poem:
... there is too often the feel with [Heaney's] poetry that the paraphrase is the end of the matter: there is little of the multifaceted richness of suggestion that invites one to probe further. (PN Review 121, May/June 1998, p. 64)
An even shorter, one-sentence paraphrase of the basic claim of "The Rain Stick" is easy to produce: no matter how often you hear it, the rain stick remains wondrous, even — or especially — when you know how it works or have exhaustively described its effect. Such a description of the effect is itself a paraphrase, so a second paraphrase of the poem could be: a poem cannot be exhausted by its paraphrase. "The Rain Stick" thus contradicts Caldwell's claim about paraphrase — but this paraphrase would be "the end of the matter" if its claim were simply taken at face value. It is not enough for the poem to say that a poem cannot be exhausted by its paraphrase — it also has to be such a poem, otherwise Caldwell's prosaic claim will stand against Heaney's poetic one.

To test the poem against Caldwell's challenge, you need, in one sense, only do what the poem tells you to do: "Listen now again." You can repeat with the poem what the poem does with the rain stick: you can name and characterize and explain the sounds the poem makes, the patterns it produces, and the meanings it generates. In another sense, though, the poem tells you, in the rhetorical question in lines fifteen and sixteen, that such a reading is unnecessary: the description of how the rain stick works is superfluous to the experience of its effect. A description of how a poem works ought, then, to be superfluous as well. The contradiction between my paraphrase of "The Rain Stick" and Caldwell's general claim about much of Heaney's poetry is thus to some degree present in "The Rain Stick" as a contradiction between exhaustive description and the claim that such description is unnecessary. The rhetorical question denies the value of describing the poem, but the poem still asks you — even commands you — to produce such a description. You have to read against the rhetorical question and with the poem's imperatives.

"Upend the rain stick," then: the three imperatives frame the poem with a repeated call to action, dividing the poem into two parts, which describe two stages in the experience of hearing the rain stick. The first part, a linear sequence of events, goes from line one to line twelve, the second, a linear argument, from line twelve to line eighteen. In terms of lineation, the two parts are asymmetrical, and the second imperative is two-thirds of the way through the poem, in the twelfth line of eighteen. But in another sense, the second imperative is in the middle of the poem: it is the fifth of the poem's nine sentences. The visible asymmetry of the placement of the poem's imperatives, then, hides a less obvious symmetry. (Of course, the stanzas provide a further symmetry which, along with the lineation, works both with and against the syntactic structures of the sentences.)

A shorthand version of the poem's first five sentences (lines one to twelve) would be: imperative, names, experience, names, imperative — another symmetry. Each of these sentences plays with or against the poem's lineation to develop the poem's claims about the rain stick. To start with, not only does the second sentence provide a set of names for the sound of the rain stick, its form also acts out the surprise described in sentence one. First, the line break between "cactus stalk" and the proliferation of names ("Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash") contrasts the "dry" appearance of the rain stick and what it produces: surprisingly "wet" — and surprisingly diverse — sounds. That this is a stanza break only adds to the contrast: in the absence of water words as well as in its more analytical language, the first stanza is "dry", while the second is very "wet" (a "wetness" in terms of both the presence of water words and the imagistic, less analytical quality of the language). This movement from the dry to the wet characterizes both the surprising effect of the rain stick (something "dry" which sounds "wet") and the linguistic movement of the poem — a pattern repeated in the second part.

The second line break in sentence two, between the watery names and the verb phrase "come flowing through" (from line four to line five), also formally realizes the claims made in the first stanza. This line break does not separate "dry" and "wet" language; rather, it duplicates the position in the stanza and the syntax (subject/verb) of the break at the end of the poem's first line. This creates a parallelism between the elements of each sentence, between "what happens next" and the names in line four on the one hand and the "music you never would have known / To listen for" and the "flowing" of the water sounds on the other. The identity of the position and syntactic structure of the two enjambments emphasizes the contrast in the types of language used in each sentence — as does the assonance of "known" and "flowing," another shift from the "dry" to the "wet." In short, the second sentence of "The Rain Stick" uses two enjambments to support the claim made in the first sentence, enjambments which act out the surprise of the rain stick. They provide "wet," poetic support for the "dry" assertion with which the poem begins.

The third sentence further develops this poetic argument by introducing another tool — explicitly figurative language of a kind which has not yet appeared in the poem. This sentence contains two of the poem's three similes (the third appears in line seventeen). The first of them shifts away from the naming of the water sounds to what it is like to hear those sounds: "You stand there like a pipe." A "pipe" has the same shape as a "rain stick" or a "cactus stalk"; even before the line break to "being played by water," it is as if the listener were becoming the rain stick itself, as if hearing the rain stick turned the listener into a rain stick. After the line break, then, with "Being played by water," the listener is compared not to what is actually happening in the rain stick ("you" are not like "a cactus stalk being played by the fall of grit or dry seeds") but only to the sounds it produces. That is, the poem and its claims remain focused on the illusion created by the rain stick. Anticipating the structure of the later rhetorical question, the simile privileges the "wetness" of the rain stick's effect over the "dryness" of its production of that effect.

In the second sentence, the names for the rain stick's illusion are all "watery"; the connection between watery sounds and "music" is indirect, the result of the formal patterning of the first four-and-a-half lines of the poem. The second part of the third sentence uses, in line seven, the poem's only explicitly musical terms to describe the rain stick's "watery" sounds: "diminuendo runs through all its scales." This metaphor is easy to paraphrase: the stick makes a wide variety of increasingly quiet sounds. But the line with the poem's only musical metaphor is not as simple as this paraphrase would suggest: it plays a central role in the poem's music, even if only the assonance of the "o" in "diminuendo" with "known" and "flowing" is audible now. The volume of the rain stick's sounds is decreasing, but the poem's music continues. At the same time, this is the last "o" in the whole poem, as if one phoneme has already "run through all its scales," leaving others to run through theirs. The simile which follows the line break, "like a gutter stopping trickling," introduces sounds which will provide the music of the fourth sentence. As a whole, then, sentence three continues to use enjambment to act out the poem's argument, but adds assonance and figurative language to the poem's tool set.

Here, in the middle of line eight, the sounds the rain stick produces seem to be at an end — but "now here comes / A sprinkle of drops," the first of a whole new set of sounds described not with musical imagery but a different kind of images and even a different kind of language. The break between lines eight and nine prepares the burst of verbal energy which "runs through all its scales" in this sentence, the longest in the poem. The use of "here" inverts standard syntax and creates a chiasmus that the lineation draws attention to: in the second sentence, the break is between a subject and its verb (water sounds "come flowing through"); in the fourth, between a verb and its subject ("here comes" a water sound). The lineation, the chiasmus, and the repetition of "come" all serve to anticipate this second set of surprises.

The parallel images which follow each take up a full, end-stopped line (the first end-stopped lines in the poem). In contrast to most of the earlier water images, the water sounds are no longer part of a human world of "pipes" and "gutters" but rather part of a natural world of "freshened leaves" and "grass and daisies." "Sprinkle," "drops," "subtle," "little," "glitter," "drizzle": phonetically, these words emerge from the phrase "a gutter stopping trickling"; they "run through all the scales" of the simile at the beginning of line eight. Lexically, though, the language here is increasingly nonstandard — in general terms, but even just in the context of the poem: "a sprinkle of drops" is everyday usage, but "wets" makes an adjective into a noun (the only such shift in the poem), and the nonce compounds "glitter-drizzle" and "almost-breaths" are the most nonstandard words in the whole poem. The surprise in the opening lines is named as a surprise, and the wet sounds which follow are surprising, given the dryness of the "cactus stalk" — but by line eleven, the surprise is not just in the sounds but in the names themselves, words "you never would have known to listen for." Here, the poem's language is at its most "poetic," its "wettest."

Lexically, then, lines ten and eleven are the most irregular in the poem, but rhythmically, they are part of the poem's most regular stanza. The poem's opening line is close enough to iambic pentameter to produce a blank-verse feel — though its rhythm is not unambiguous. "Upend the rain stick and what happens next": the third foot, "stick and," is a trochee — a standard inversion nicely reinforcing the "upending" of the rain stick itself. After this almost regular start, the first three stanzas are full of metrical variations and substitutions which take the rhythm quite far from blank verse, even if most of them are easy to read as having five beats. Only line five ("Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe") can be unequivocally read as iambic pentameter — the clear meter of every line in the fourth stanza. After the fourth stanza, only line fifteen ("Who cares if all the music that transpires") is again a regular iambic pentameter line. In a poem consisting mostly of metrical deviation, the fourth stanza's sudden regularity is an essential part of the burst of energy created by the suddenly surprising names.

Still, the lexical and metrical energy of these lines is only part of what's happening here. Those "almost-breaths of air" lift the poem into a new realm. Until now, even though rain comes from the sky, everything in the poem has been of the earth, and the water has always been falling. Seamus Deane has described the relationship between earth and air in Heaney's poetry: "He wants the powers of earth to give him sufficient liftoff to carry him into the regions of air" (30). (Deane made this remark in 1990, even before the 1991 publication of Seeing Things, where Heaney described himself, in the poem "Fosterling," as "waiting until I was nearly fifty / To credit marvels" — ST, 50. He was born in 1939.) At the end of its first part, "The Rain Stick" generates Deane's "liftoff" with a series of poetic "upendings": the syntactic inversion of sentence four, which "upends" sentence two and generates new energy right at the moment of "diminuendo"; the musical development of that energy out of the "stopping" sounds of "gutter stopping trickling"; the lexical enrichment of the poem's language in lines ten and eleven; metrical regularity where there was none before; the spatial inversion of the sudden shift into "air," after the use of so many down-to-earth words; and, of course, the imperative "upend the stick again" which immediately follows this moment of "liftoff," in which it is as if the rain is no longer falling, but rising into the remarkable "air".

II. Upend the Stick Again
It is easy to paraphrase the poem's basic assertion up to this point — the rain stick's effect is wonderful and unforeseeable. It is easy to extend this paraphrase to include poetry itself — the poem's workings make that clear, as does Heaney's repeated emphasis, in his essays, on the "unforeseeable" quality of great poetry, its ability to maintain its surprise. His 1992 lecture on Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, describes "what typically happens in lyric poetry of the purest sort": "Suddenly the thing chanced upon comes forth as the thing predestined: the unforeseen appears as the inevitable" (Redress, 108). Heaney's poems also return over and over again to the unforeseeable, what can "catch the heart off guard and blow it open," as he put it in "Postscript," the last poem in The Spirit Level. But the paraphrase of the argument of "The Rain Stick" does not and cannot do justice to the poetic form of that argument. The first part of the poem supports its initial claim with an argument whose tools are almost exclusively those of poetry: lineation (both enjambment and end-stopping), stanza structure, assonance, meter, and heightened language. (Two of the poem's other tools, chiasmus and simile, are rhetorical figures, and not as exclusively poetic as the rest are.) While continuing to use such poetic tools, the second part of the poem also introduces a different kind of argument — a more linear, logical movement. Further, it thematizes the relationship between this mode of argument and the "poetic" mode used so convincingly in the first part. The poetic use of "dry" language makes the reintroduction of "wet" language all the more effective in the poem's conclusion. The final image acts out and thereby poetically justifies the poem's claims about the insufficiency of "dry" language, its inability to describe something like the rain stick — or a poem.

The contrast between the two parts already appears in how line twelve repeats line one, but with a difference. The second "upending" of the rain stick is different from the first precisely because "you" now know what to listen for, a knowledge marked by the line's metrical implication in the energy of lines eleven and twelve, that ultimate sense of "liftoff" which listening to the rain stick generates. The replacement of the metrically ambiguous phrase "rain stick and" by the clearly regular "stick again" eliminates the opening line's metrical ambiguity and fits line twelve into stanza four's rhythmic pattern. At the same time, the caesura introduced by this revision stops the momentum generated by sentence four and separates cause and effect, the second "upending" from the experience of it, perhaps marking the anticipation which the listener will have at the moment of a second experience of the stick. Finally, the line break after "what happens next" which opened the poem reappears here as a stanza break, setting the "music you never would have known / To listen for" parallel to "undiminished for having happened once, / Twice, ten, a thousand times before." This changes the original claim the poem made about the sound of the rain stick: if repetition does not attenuate the rain stick's effect on the listener, its surprising quality is not dependent on whether you "know to listen for" it or not. "Undiminished" does not mean unchanged. The repetition may be "undiminished", but that does not mean it is not heard differently.

The primary marker of this change in the second part of the poem is the comparative "dryness" of most of its language; it returns to the tone of the first stanza. From line four on, the first part of the poem is full of "wet" words and language which is more and more explicitly "poetic" (culminating in line eleven's nonce words); after the second "upending," the "wet" words and the explicitly "poetic" language disappear until the last two lines. To some degree, the language is "dry" in the usual sense of the word — it is more analytical, even rhetorical — but it is the contrast between the presence of water words in lines four through eleven and their absence in lines one to three and twelve to seventeen that drew my attention to this "dryness." Only after I had noticed that did it strike me that the "dry" parts of the poem tend to be more analytical than the "wet" parts.

The poem's language is at its driest, in the usual sense of the word, in lines thirteen and fourteen, in the counting of the "upendings". These two lines explicitly call counting into question. At the same time, though, they develop the poem's earlier patterns — they make use of repetition even as they dismiss its importance. The poem continues to "run through all its scales." "Undiminished," the central word here, recalls the "diminuendo" in line seven even as it negates it, as lines nine through eleven did to the phrase "gutter stopping trickling." Further, "before" at the end of line fourteen not only is a full rhyme with "listen for" but also repeats its sentence-final position. The very sound of these "dry" sentences, then, supports the claim that the surprising effect of the rain stick does not diminish when it is heard again, a claim the sentence's lineation also supports, with the stanza break, and with the end-stopped break at the end of line thirteen. This second break is in a paratactic parallel construction ("once, / Twice, ten, a thousand times before") — the same kind of construction as in the end-stopping of lines nine and ten. The poem's driest claim thus has the same form as its wettest, most poetic language. This form, and not any evidence, is what provides support for the poem's argument. The "dry" language is "watered," so to speak, by its connections to what came earlier, and the poem incorporates and energizes that language even as it argues against it.

Still, the following lines move out of these in what can only be described as a logical argument, which can be paraphrased as follows: the experience is "undiminished" even by knowledge of how it works, because that experience is as astonishing as a miracle. The poem makes this argument — and continues to dismiss argument and analysis even more vehemently than before. In sentence seven, the rhetorical question provides an explanation of how the rain stick works even as it dismisses the need for such an explanation. The claim is simple: explanation diminishes the quality of the sound no more than repetition does. Line fifteen, the first of the sentence, names the sound again (though without water words), in a clean iambic pentameter line which reinforces the priority of the name over the explanation which follows. The enjambment in the following stanza break again separates subject and verb, but now the music comes before the break, rather than after it. This structure also inverts the opening stanza break, where "cactus" preceded the proliferation of water words in line four: here, the "music" comes first, before the "dryness" of the cactus. Thus, the poem explicitly privileges "music" over "dry" language in at least three ways: in the sentence's semantics, meter, and enjambment. This is the same privileging as in the poem's first simile, "like a pipe / Being played by water": the analytical point was first made poetically. Nevertheless, despite the devaluation of the "dry" in favor of the musical, the "dry" language of the explanation in line sixteen becomes part of the poem's music: "grit" and "dry seeds" are new to the poem, but the repetition of "cactus" recalls the surprise created by the shift from "cactus stalk" to "downpour" at the end of the third line. Further, "cactus" and "through" framed the second sentence, where the rain stick's surprising wetness was first introduced (enclosing those sounds, in a sense, just as the rain stick itself encloses the "grit or dry seeds" it contains). The poem may dismiss the importance of the rain stick's dryness as a source of the rain stick's music, but that dryness is very much part of "all the music that transpires" in the poem.

But the most important word in line sixteen is surely "fall." Phonetically, it echoes "all" in the previous line and in line seven (where "all" also appeared with "through": "runs through all its scales"). But "fall" does more than echo "all" — it contains it. "All the music that transpires" (and even "all the scales" of diminuendo) are thus subsumed in "the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus" — even as the poem apparently claims the opposite. The rhetorical question privileges the music over the explanation, but the music of the poem makes "all the music" into part of the explanation. As the sound is inside the rain stick, the music of the poem is inside its words, even those words which are not about the music of the rain stick.

All this takes place inside a rhetorical question. Such a question always has a certain ambiguity: what if it is not a "rhetorical" question but a real one? What if we really are supposed to think about who might care? Heaney's reading on the tape which came with the original American hardcover issue of The Spirit Level makes clear that, for him, "who cares" is rhetorical, but the intonation which makes that clear is not audible on the page. Indeed, it is quite hard to hear "who cares" as anything but rhetorical, but when I listen to a rain stick, I care. Part of what makes the rain stick's effect survive repetition is precisely the knowledge that "all the music that transpires" is nothing more than "the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus." All that wetness comes from dyrness; all that music comes from so little — and that "littleness" does not "diminish" the music, but rather amplifies the power of its effect.

But perhaps the issue is less that the rhetoricity of the question is unstable than that the negating irony of the rhetorical question has to introduce what it negates — and then what it negates is subject to the poem's music, its formal, phonetic, rhythmic, and semantic patterns, so that what it negates becomes part of those patterns, is supported by those patterns, becomes part of the assertion involved in those patterns. This is how poetry can work differently than argumentative rhetoric: claims which the logical argument of a poem might dismiss can — and must — become part of the poem's poetic argument, not dismissed but incorporated by the poem. Because of the incorporating quality of poetic form, a poetic argument is always inclusive.

The relationship of "all" and "fall" acts out this incorporation — the "fall" of what's inside the rain stick contains "all the music that transpires" as well "all the scales of diminuendo." This "fall" takes on another meaning, however, in the light of line seventeen: "You are like a rich man entering heaven." "Entering heaven" inverts the "fall" in the previous line; further, the phrase makes clear that the shift into the "air" in line eleven is a "marvel" (one that Heaney marvelously credits here). This shift from descent to ascent is reinforced by the simile. The poem's previous similes each had an element of descent: water flowing through "pipes" and "gutters." The third simile thus "upends" the previous ones, and the experience of hearing the rain stick defies gravity for a second time.

Of course, line seventeen does include a miracle: the proverb says that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. If you are like a rich man entering heaven, you are like someone unexpectedly given grace. The explicit grace is that of the rain stick, whose surprising quality generates this sense of the miraculous. The implicit grace is that of the poem itself, and of poetry in general, "at one moment unforeseeable and at the next indispensable" (Redress, 192-193), to use another of Heaney's own turns of phrase (this one from his 1993 essay "Frontiers of Writing"). What makes you a rich man here is not your financial assets but the wealth of music the rain stick gives you — by which I mean the object and the poem by Seamus Heaney.

As if the miracle of line seventeen weren't enough, the sentence continues with the first "watery" language of the second part of the poem: "through the ear of a raindrop." This is the poem's ultimate water image — and the first since "glitter-drizzle" in line eleven. It is as if the second part of the poem compresses all of the first part's water imagery, and the power of the language used to express that imagery, into this single image. Here, the word "rain" appears for only the second time in the poem — and the first was in the poem's opening line. "Rain" frames the poem as much as the imperatives do. Further, "ear" is a sound which appears only twice in the poem — the first time in line eight, in the word "here," as the crescendo begins after the false ending of "diminuendo." "Drop" is also part of that crescendo, which culminated in the "almost-breaths of air," and "drop" reappears here. Those nonce words in line eleven thus play the same role as this image in line eighteen: each passage ties together the sounds and images which have come before into a unifying image with which the poem "lifts off" or, in its own terms, "enters heaven." Just as the last sounds the rain stick makes when you first upend it are increasingly fantastic, necessitating the invention of new words to name them, the last sounds of the poem "The Rain Stick" lift off into an image which, though expressed in words, and thus part of the poem's music, lifts the poem out of itself, "into the regions of air."

But the word in line eighteen which most does that work is the preposition "through," which appears here for the fourth time in the poem. It connects water, music, dryness, and miracle: "come flowing through," "diminuendo runs through," "grit or dry seeds [fall] through," "enter heaven through." The "flowing," "running," and "falling" express the rain stick's illusion, a metaphor for that illusion, and the reality behind that illusion — and "entering heaven / Through the ear of a raindrop" captures the miraculous sensation triggered by a combination of illusion, metaphor, and reality.

Heaney's poetry provides context for this phrase and the miraculous sensation it produces. The poem "The Railway Children," from Heaney's 1984 collection Station Island, depicts children playing along "the cutting" of the railway line, where "we were small and thought we knew nothing / Worth knowing" (SI, 45). That line break is reminiscent of the "music you never would have known / To listen for," and the poem's conclusion recalls that of "The Rain Stick" as well:
We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle. (SI, 45)
A similar interplay of childhood memory and miracle appears in The Spirit Level in the poem "The Butter-Print," with its vivid conclusion to a memory of "swallowing an awn of rye":
 ... when I coughed and coughed and coughed it up,

My breathing came dawn-cold, so clear and sudden
I might have been inhaling airs from heaven
Where healed and martyred Agatha stares down
At the relic knife as I stared at the awn. (SL, 53)
Deane has summarized the role of this kind of imagery in Heaney's work, "recurrent images of eye, needle, notch, the infinitesimally small opening through which the actual flows, as through an isthmus, into the visionary" (32).

"Through the ear of a raindrop": even after analyzing the entire poem, I am still stunned by this phrase. The image seems even further beyond interpretation than "diminuendo runs through all its scales" or those splendid nonce words in line eleven. I can describe its effect, I can talk about how it fits in the poem, I can analyze its role in the poem's music, I can even connect it to a tendency in Heaney's poetry — I can do all the things the poem itself does with the experience of the rain stick, and more, but no matter what I do with this line, it is as if it were looking back at me, as simply amazing as Dickinson's "As all the Heavens were a Bell / And Being, but an Ear" or Baudelaire's "noir compagnons sans oreilles et sans yeux" or Rilke's "O hoher Baum im Ohr!" — "Through the ear of a raindrop": the interpreter stops cold, and does what the poem tells him to do: "Listen now again."

III. Listen Now Again
A poem cannot be exhausted by its paraphrase: this paraphrase makes "The Rain Stick" into a version of some old classic paradox, as when a Cretan says that all Cretans are liars. But "The Rain Stick" produces this point not by presenting a logical argument, like Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which can be dispensed with when the argument has been made. Rather, it develops a poetic argument, one developed through images, not through ideas; through the tools of meter, lineation, stanza structure, and assonance — the tools of poetry, not logical development. The poem does not merely assert the poem's paraphrasable content but rather acts out how the "wet" language of poetry overwhelms both the analysis of how it works and the "dry" arguments which describe its workings, whether "the fall of grit or dry steeds through a cactus," the vibrations of vocal cords, or the play of phonemes, line breaks, and repetitions on a page. The paradox of "The Rain Stick" is finally that it tells you how to read and understand it, how to describe what happens in a poem, but it also tells you that it doesn't matter, that what matters is that you "listen now again."

The paraphrase of "The Rain Stick" is not, then, "the end of the matter." The poem does not merely privilege one kind of language over another; rather, it addresses and depicts the relationship between two different kinds of language. A quarter century earlier, in 1972, Heaney addressed that relationship in a different context, in an autobiographical essay called "Belfast," written in the years immediately following the beginning of "The Troubles" in Ireland:
Poetry is out of the quarrel with ourselves and the quarrel with others is rhetoric. It would wrench the rhythms of my writing procedures to start squaring up to contemporary events with more will than ways to deal with them. I have always listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down long ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery. They certainly involve craft and determination, but chance and instinct have a role in the thing too. (Preoccupations, 34)
This passage begins with a nice piece of aphoristic rhetoric which uses a chiasmus to support its claim: "Poetry is out of the quarrel with ourselves and the quarrel with others is rhetoric." Unlike the claims made in "The Rain Stick," this sentence does not appear in a poem, and hence its claim does not get swept up into a poem's music in such a way that it is incorporated into an argument that actually contradicts it. As part of an essay, this sentence is part of a movement from idea to idea — the movement, in Roland Barthes's reading of Aristotle, of techné rhétorique. In contrast, techné poétique moves from image to image. While it is easy to connect the movement from idea to idea to "the quarrel with others," the connection of techné poétique to "the quarrel with ourselves" is less clear.

In Barthes's words, the subject of the Poetics is the "art of imaginative evocation." Images, then, do not argue, but rather evoke. They do not seek to convince someone else that something is true by proving that it is true. As Heaney claims, then, poetry is not a matter of arguing with others — but how is "an art of evocative imagination" the appropriate tool for arguing with ourselves?

Heaney's assertion has its own rhetorical shape — that chiasmus which is part of its effectiveness. Chiasmus is a rhetorical figure, something used in rhetoric as part of an argumentative process. Rhetorical figures also appear in poetry, of course — "The Rain Stick" uses a chiasmus as well as similes and a rhetorical question. And logical arguments can appear in poems — as the second part of "The Rain Stick" shows. But the rhetorical figures and logical arguments in poems are not means to an end, as they are in other contexts, such as expository essays; rather, poems turn figures and arguments and ideas into ends in themselves, into moments charged with verbal energy — into images.

In his claim about poetry and rhetoric, however, the rhetorical figure Heaney uses also creates an image: the image of a Chi, an X, a chiasmus. For that one moment, in which the expository essay relies on this "imagination" of the idea, its argument is displaced by evocation. By taking two ideas and turning them into an image, chiasmus introduces a moment of poetry into the rhetorical context, just as the rhetorical question in "The Rain Stick" introduces rhetoric into the poetic context.

But the two ideas in Heaney's chiasmus are not the same. A "quarrel with others" might be a mere idea, but a "quarrel with oneself" is also an evocative image by itself, because quarreling and argument usually involve two people (or more) — it takes two to tangle. In short, Heaney's aphoristic claim works by evocation and not by argument, through the drama of the claim and not through its truth value. It is the generic context of the expository essay, and not the structure of the sentence itself, which makes the claim part of a logical argument.

As such, it is part of a "quarrel with others" — as the sentence which follows makes clear: "It would wrench the rhythms of my writing procedures to start squaring up to contemporary events with more will than ways to deal with them." As is often the case when poets write prose about their work, Heaney's essay is a defense of poetry, one which again emphasizes the necessary unforeseeability of poetic production. But it is not a defense of why he writes poetry at all; rather, he is defending himself against those who would tell him what to write.

In terms of its paraphrase, "The Rain Stick" can also be read as a defense of poetry — but it is always more than its paraphrase. By incorporating the terms of its own logical argument into a poetic context, into its own music, "The Rain Stick" functions not in terms of the truth of ideas but in terms of the drama of imagery, the acting out and not the arguing of claims. It is addressed to a second person, but it is not quarreling with that person; or if it is, it is quarreling with a second person who is part of the speaker's own self, which poetry divides, or whose divide poetry depicts — as Heaney does later in The Spirit Level, in part four of the poem "The Flight Path":
Enter this one I'd last met in a dream,
More grimfaced now than in the dream itself ...
So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
'When, for fuck's sake, are you going to write
Something for us?' 'If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I'll be writing for myself.'
And that was that. Or words to that effect. (SL, 29)
Here, Heaney depicts the divisions in Ireland, but he represents them, as the best poetry always will, in terms of internal ambiguities. The claims others make upon the self become, as in a dream, claims the self makes upon the self; the "argument with others" is transformed into an "argument with the self," into poetry, where the paraphrase is never "the end of the matter."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Spinning like a cassette tape

Marc Krebs wrote a nice piece for the Tageswoche here in Basel today in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first cassette tapes. My link to it on Facebook led to a discussion of favorite brands of tape (Marc was a Maxell guy; I used TDKs). 

The first two tapes Marc got when he was 10 were "Thriller" and a collection of hits from 1983. Just under a decade earlier, I, too, started my life as a music listener by listening to Top 40 radio and the weekly countdowns of the hits. But the big hit LP then was "Rumours" (even if the first LPs I bought were by Elton John and Queen, and the first one I was given was the Beatles blue album of late-period singles).

I'm not a great fan of "Thriller," and I haven't listened to "Rumours" in ages, but what I wonder is this: how much was my taste influenced by the dominance of Fleetwood Mac in the mid-70s, and how much was Marc's influenced by the similar dominance of Michael Jackson in the early 80s?

More generally, if a band or artist dominates the charts when you first start listening to lots of music, how much does that determine the main directions of your taste? Even if you dislike the band or artist in question! (I can see in my own son's listening habits that many kids discover music through the top 40; it's a way to share things with your peers.)

To be more personal again: Fleetwood Mac ain't actually that much different than The Grateful Dead (the latter just jammed more and didn't have a great female singer), so my taste for the Dead might in part derive from all the Fleetwood Mac I heard on mid-70s pop radio.

True, by the time I got into the Dead, I had turned away from pop radio (and thus, as it was the early 80s, from Michael Jackson), but it would be the pop of my first years of listening that would have had this influence, not the pop of my first years of college.

Or maybe I just became a Deadhead because they played at Stanford a couple weeks after my freshman year began. :-)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

For geeks?

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of references to Tolkien and "Star Wars" that are prefaced with remarks like "you have to be a geek to understand this." I don't see where this claim is coming from: neither Tolkien nor Star Wars fandom is at all "geeky." After all, "The Lord of the Rings" is one of the best-selling books ever, and the three movies are near the top of the list of highest-grossing films. And the "Star Wars" franchise is also a huge success. I guess "geeky"  sounds to me like something more exclusive, less broadly popular, something more like a limited "cult" popularity. 

At some level, though, those who assert their geekiness in this way must get something from it. Downgrading something that appeals to mass taste by claiming it is actually something only for insiders? So much of popular culture does try to individualize massive success: "I see something in it that you don't." It's a version of the beginner's cliche in criticism: "If you look at it more closely, you will see that ..." Perhaps the claim that "geeks" will get it but others won't is a version of that, and the purveyors of such claims are saying that they've looked at it closely, so they know better.