Experience vs. Narrative

The diachronic study of mysticism turns on an appreciation of the deforming power of William James’s norm of intense personal experience. Deforming, that is, with respect to a different ‘earlier’ kind of mysticism—relevant to the lives of innumerable ‘mystics’ like Julian of Norwich (see Julian of Norwich, Theologian, by Denys Turner).

I think that episode in intellectual history sheds light on the study of poetic form. Usually poems are valued in terms of deep personal immanence. Poems showcase ‘states of mind,’ a belief which encourages a hermeneutics of pathology. This may help explain the endgame of our current habit of apocalyptics.

But if we accept the distinction between Jamesian ‘experience’ and ‘narrative’ (as our principle of emergent form requires), a paradigm shift occurs. Others become the locus of the logos, their stories inseparable from the grammars of the time and the place. “Another fine day tomorrow, she drawled, headlocking a memory” (last line of ‘Muzzy McIntyre’ by Geraldine Clarkson). As function of narrative, poetic style expresses complex values —-humor as well as dead seriousness as here. ‘Tone’ as topic is considerably refined as polyphony or the mix of voices emergent from the narrative.

Given Being

What does poetry have to do with philosophy? Well, consider certain words that live their lives in the conversations of philosophers. Shouldn’t poets know how to play the whole piano?

Take ‘being’: poets should be able to use that word mindfully,?in full awareness of its multiple usages and ambiguities. And then certain phrases, like ‘given being,’ where idioms cast light on dark places in all too often univocal concepts.

‘Given being’: that is, given the irreducible presence of being in consciousness, what follows? That is, being-as-not a construction of thought but an irreducible primordial sine qua non (since nothing comes from nothing and nothing has relevance only in light of the somethingness of being).

And there you go, the grammar of an ordinary word leads into the complexities and finesses of the fidelities of thought, anciently called philosophy.

Desire’s Emergency

Form emerges as the poem takes shape in time. The energy of this emergency is desire. Jaccottet’s ‘nothing’—- (Nothing at all, a footfall on the road,/yet more mysterious than guide or god.) Mahon Trans. Nothing has become a symbol in our time susceptible to many interpretations. It takes a connoisseur. Jaccottet was devoted to the Earth (we will not have done with symbols!). In Char’s word, he was a ‘requalified man.’ (See Selected Poems, translated by Derek Mahon, Wake Forest University Press, 1988).

A Note on Poetry and Numbers, with an example from Levertov

Contemporary poets —-except for the ‘formalists’—- do not consider numbers as an aspect of form. If we learn meters at all we do so to betray them; deviation from strict counting is considered more honest, truer to feeling. But numbers are real and the metrical or measured dimension of poetry may feel less real if quantity —- as pattern of fulfillment and disruption —- is neglected.

As I argue on this blog, form emerges as the poem unfolds in time. The idea of time may help us think about numbers, even meters. To attend to, to be attentive to, the becoming of a poem may include attending to the measures, the syllable count, the meters; that way of measuring the poem in time could indeed ADD a dimension of reality to the form as it emerges. Not to mention a dimension of pleasure.

Finally, any discussion of meter that grapples with real poems shows how meter is a structure in tension with other structures of rhythm; idiom, for example, gains power when it ‘fits’ and is ‘sounded’ within multiple structures.

He with whom I ran hand in hand
kicking the leathery leaves …

Denise Levertov “A Woman Meets An Old Lover”

The Poet’s Progress


—-first section of ‘Lost Rules of Usage’ by Susan Stewart CINDER: New and Selected Poems (2017)

If we agree that the form of a poem emerges from our experience as readers (the word form may also refer to generic distinctions between kinds), it is useful to consider Wittgenstein’s key concept ‘form of life.’ (‘Life’ refers to the practices of those who habitually express themselves with given expressions.)

Poems ‘go on’ by following the ‘grammar’ of the words in use: the rules governing meaning in the community of users. Those are the rules, as we say—-exceptions taking their import from departure from the given rules.

One upshot of this approach to form is the prejudice against ‘private languages.’ Poets struggle with this prejudice all the time, early in the process of shaping a poem preferring what is in your head to what is communicated on the page. But that just won’t do. There’s an ethical aspect to composition: authentic participation, however ludic, in a form of life.

The concept of ‘branching’ has been suggested to get at the formal process. (See Philosophical Investigations 47). One thing leads to another, every extension (line, half-line, stanza, etc.) drawing new sense out of what’s there.

The poet’s progress depends on increasing mastery of the relevant ‘language games’ that make communication possible.

Why I write

When young I explored along with the Ancients the existentialists — Kierkegaard, Marcel, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger—- before I chose to study literature in graduate school. The war between say Marcel and Heidegger was not one in which I could fight; I didn’t know enough. I had a reaction to reading Heidegger that manifested itself in itching my arms—- a skin rash. On the other hand, I held Camus’ REBEL close.

But I knew enough to know that I felt more myself when reading poetry than contemporary philosophy. That ‘self’ revealed in the process of reading poetry mindfully is still something that fascinates me. It’s why I write.

This ‘self’ turned out to be post-Romantic. A ‘self’ other to the buffered self (Taylor), akin to the Unconscious self of Zen. Reading Shakespeare or Dickinson or Hopkins or Oswald can be harrowing, but from the perplexity form emerges, and this emergence, poem by poem, connects the reader with a creative fluidity that underwrites the plurivocity of creation. And the many distinct voices of creation is the truth, it seems to me, of poetry.