Monday, 28 June 2010

Reasons Galore!

Swiftly the years, beyond recall.
Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.
(Arthur Waley from the Chinese)

William Empson quotes these lines to show that though it lacks rhyme and meter, and any metaphor

…these lines are what we call poetry only by virtue of their compactness; two statements are made as if they were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their relationship for himself. The reason why these facts should have been selected for a poem is left for him to invent; he will invent a variety of reasons and order them in his own mind. This, I think, is the essential fact about the poetical language.

Is it?

How much when we read a poem is going on below the conscious mind? When we first read a poem are we picking up all the meanings, are we recognising even the main ones? Or are we responding to its feel, a certain atmosphere; its texture. 

We first absorb a poem, only later do we understand it.

Or try to – this is Empson’s invention. We first get vague feelings, of fulfilment, of nourishment, we feel a certain calm, but also a movement of the feelings: there are times of unsettledness, of emotion waiting to burst; of energy to be unleashed… Later, on a second, third, 15th reading we get other sensations when the mind invents its reasons, when it finally “understands” the poem; gives it form, a sense of completeness. But this mental analysis only follows after the initial absorption. Schopenhauer describes it well:

This rumination goes on almost as unconsciously as the conversion of nourishment into the humours and substance of the body.

David Hinton discussing classical Chinese poetry, agrees with Empson that it forces the reader, by having only descriptive words and no function words, to make the mental links. However, he qualifies this quite substantially:

In reading a Chinese poem, you mentally fill in the grammatical emptiness, and yet it always remains emptiness. This means participating in the silence of an empty mind at the boundaries of its true, wordless form, an experience you can know directly in the depths of consciousness through the practice of meditation…

He then goes on to describe this meditation:

….we are fundamentally separate from the mental processes we normally identify with, that we are essentially nothing other than wilderness in the most profound ontological sense. And going deeper into meditative practice, one simply dwells in that undifferentiated emptiness, that generative realm of nonbeing. (Schopenhauer’s rumination?)

Or a less arcane explanation:

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. (A.C. Graham in Reznikoff)

It is the feeling that connects the two statements. It creates the perception, which our mind later fills in, adding richness and depth; a sense of form and meaning.

Empson was a virtuoso. The intellectual critic par excellence; poet too:

Delicate goose-step of penned scorpions
Patrols its weal under glass-cautered bubble;
Postpones, fire-cinct, their suicide defiance,
Pierced carapace stung in mid vault of bell.
(from Plenum and Vacuum)

In order to understand this poem you need some understanding of the terminology:

• Plenum: a space completely filled by matter
• Scorpions may kill themselves under glass when frightened by fire
• Cinct: encircled

All mind; a failure of so much poetry that followed Eliot – substituting feeling for new and old myths, for incorporating un-integrated knowledge and facts into the narratives and lyrics. Too much reason, to which the feeling doesn’t respond. But then Empson defeats me, with a gorgeous line:

Delicate goose-step of penned scorpions.

There are no rules in poetry, it seems. A strange way to end, because I found this passage through one of Chomsky’s references; where in talking about the unconscious rules that structure our language he writes:

The rules in question are not rules of nature, nor, of course, are they legislated or laid down by any authority. They are, if our theorizing is correct, rules that are constructed by the mind in the course of the acquisition of knowledge. They can be violated, and in fact, departure from the rules can often be an effective literary device.

Interestingly both Empson and Chomsky share the view that we create our meanings, our language world. Compare this with Lewontin, in a previous post. All three see us as creative animals, constructing our own environments within the limits set by our internal and external worlds.

There’s not too much that can be done to our physical limitations, to the natural laws, but we can expand our possibilities within the human world, in society; enabling as to grow and expand, to increase our invention. Both Russell and Chomsky have carried this idea into practice; seeking political change for more justice and freedom, and for giving more people the chance to create and control their work. Like reading Arthur Waley, life should be ours to create. 

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