by Beverley Bie Brahic
from Poetry, November 2016
Do poems think?
Big question, one that has nagged people at least since Plato was grumbling about the dangerously loose thinking of poets in contrast to the rigor of philosophers. "There's an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry," he said in the Republic—but what exactly that quarrel was is moot—not least because Plato's use of dramatic dialogue to make his case was itself poetical.
Much rides, no doubt, on one's definition of thinking. Reginald Gibbons's How Poems Think casts the net wide, assuming that poems think in all kinds of ways (abstractly, concretely, etymologically, metaphorically, sonically ... ), even poems with the limited attention span of—let me quote, for the fun of it, the beginning of Karen Solie's neck-snapping "The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out":
The perspective is unfamiliar.
We hadn't looked back, driving in,
and lingered too long
at the viewpoint. It was a prime-of-life
experience. Many things we know
by their effects: void in the rock
that the river may advance, void
in the river that the fish may advance,
helicopter in the canyon
like a fly in a jar, a mote in the eye,
a wandering cause. It grew dark ...
"Sentences in unpredictable but deep sequence in unpredictable but braced lines," Michael Hofmann says of Solie, who keeps a dozen balls in the air at once and lands them with no-stress aplomb. Here is Gibbons on another poet's comparable flash and dazzle: "[His] poetic thinking moves very fast from one image or allusion to the next ... in what may seem non sequiturs rather than a 'logic' of syntax, line, narrative, setting, or argument." Ashbery? No. Gérard de Nerval.
How Poems Think, however, rests its argument in a quieter place, walking us through a (by now) altogether more user-friendly snippet of William Carlos Williams's 1923 sequence Spring and All:
Pink confused with white
flowers and flowers reversed
take and spill the shaded flame
darting it back
into the lamp's horn ...
Gibbons points to the poem's grace, its doublings, its darting movements, its phoneme repetitions and historical precedents, and to how its words, magically, poetically, seductively, coalesce to produce thought and feeling:
In his poem, Williams is giving the mere transience of the light from a lamp on a short-lived flowering potted plant its immortal moment, and its ... immortal ... articulation in a poem .... In rescuing the humble potted plant from oblivion, Williams performs an ancient poetic role, rescuing for a moment those of us who look at the potted plant with him.
Williams's poem is the exclamation point of a book that digs into poetry's rich, layered meaning-making humus. The oldest poems, it recalls, were oral: religious or magical contraptions—charms, prayers, curses—before they became tales of the tribe to be recited and embellished and handed down, eventually in writing, as exemplars (pop wisdom that irked Plato). Gibbons is "fascinated by the antiquity of poetry, or rather, of poetic thinking .... I mean the present-day practice of devices and structures of poetic thinking that were used long ago"; and his book is packed with poetry's teeming underground life, here decaying, there sending up tender shoots. A little word like cumin gathers a jarful of observations: "The most ancient version of the word cumin was not very different in form and sound from our word .... The spell I might have chanted while holding my little cumin-seed sack would have been a kind of verbal apotropaic amulet ... pushing away ... a disturbing or dispiriting thought."
Not much breath is wasted exhuming poetry's fall-back mode, the rhetoric of persuasion (consider that diminutive debate, the sonnet, taking its Petrarchan turn or thumping its Shakespearean couplet on the table; or Andrew Marvell's deviously cogent "To His Coy Mistress," or, for that matter, any number of homely but witty poems by our contemporary, Carl Dennis). Gibbons is happiest sifting through the Mallarméan echo chamber of British modernist Mina Loy,
of Eros obsolete
—From Lunar Baedeker
or Basil Bunting's to-and-fro-ing between Anglo-Saxon and Latin root words. Poems, Gibbons wants us to know, have more ways of thinking than culture-bound readers might dream of, and he lays out his goods for us to contemplate: antiquity's feminine weaving songs, Russian rhymes (that lead, rather than follow or merely ornament thought), nineteenth-century French and twentieth-century English-language poems that glide from sound to sound or, like Russian dolls, nest small words inside bigger ones—"ox" inside "onyx," say. There is a secondary text here, too, about working against the grain—one's own or the assumptions of one's culture—to enlarge one's poetic practice and mode of thinking—something Gibbons set out as a young poet to do:
In California around 1970, when in my early twenties I was living about fifteen miles inland from the shore of that "peaceful ocean" that was both a body of water and an idea, I was often trying to imagine how to write a poem that would be better, more interesting, than what I had written so far.
How Poems Think's first chapter, part memoir—I'd have welcomed more of this narrative/discursive mode—recounts a formative encounter with Donald Davie, a contemporary of Philip Larkin who came to teach in the US. Davie, Gibbons tells us, deplored the American confessional: "In lyric poetry ... what you are doing is making the personal impersonal. This is different from making the private public." Later, Davie would confess his own struggles:
It is true that I am not a poet by nature, only by inclination; for my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet's need of concreteness. I have resisted this admission for so long, chiefly because a natural poet was above all what I wanted to be.
"Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined"? No, says Davie. A true poem can be written by a mind "not naturally poetic"
by the inhuman labor of thwarting at every point the natural grain and bent. This working against the grain does not damage the mind, nor is it foolish; on the contrary, only by doing this does each true poem as it is written become an authentic widening of experience—a truth won from life against all odds.
Gibbons also cites the French poet Yves Bonnefoy on the challenges and rewards of translation as a means of enlarging one's understanding of how poems—and languages—work: "Opposing metaphysics [ ... ] govern and, sometimes, tyrannize the French and English languages. [ ... ] English concerns itself naturally with tangible aspects," whereas French poetry is "a place apart, where the bewildering diversity of the real can be forgotten, and also the very existence of time, everyday life and death." The English language, Bonnefoy has said, in his Preface to Emily Grosholz's translation of Beginning and End of the Snow, is "so much more aptly fashioned than my own for the observation of concrete detail at a specific place and time, otherwise put, for the expression of the events of a particular existence."
Thus a French writer appreciates the earthiness of Shakespeare or Keats. And English poets—Eliot, Ashbery—absorb French wit, abstraction, and stream of consciousness. How Poems Think struck me as particularly illuminating on how the associative thinking of nineteenth-century French poets trickled down into English poetry, shifting it "from representing lived experience, reason, and the world and toward creating an imaginative experience unique to the poem, by means of evocation, ellipsis, allusion, mood, impressionistically presented feeling, and so on." Today, Gibbons speculates,
perhaps mood too has been discarded in favor of a kind of unmistakable poem-ness ... that has no referent or purpose beyond providing the reader with an experience of a particular way of suggesting a meaning that cannot be thought, or of not being meaningful at all in any expected way.
A beautiful line of verse is all the more beautiful as it means absolutely nothing, a literary friend told Marcel in Swann's Way—and Marcel blushed to think that he in his innocence expected of poetry "nothing less than the revelation of truth itself." Rirnbaud, whose kaleidoscopic, not-meaningful-in-any-expected-way Illuminations John Ashbery not so long ago translated, is described by Thorn Gunn (in "Shit") as having
Coursed after meaning, meaning of course to trick it,
Across the lush green meadows of his youth,
To the edge of the unintelligible thicket
Where truth becomes the same place as untruth.
Making it new? Not necessarily, as Pound, translator of the Tang and the troubadours, knew: some of the new is the old stripped, painted new colors. Poking into cobwebby corners, weaving narrative into discourse, using assemblage, How Poems Think is a trove. I read it with a pencil—until I saw that underlining everything was the same as underlining nothing.
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