the poem as participating in the ongoing human project of making the world

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

How is a poem like a coat? In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry develops Marx’s insight that the human body is an artefact that is constantly being remade by means of the artefacts which we produce, and by so doing we participate in the ongoing human project of making the world. Material objects hold and extend our sentience. She notes Marx’s description of cloth, for example, as memorialization of the body: “the woven cloth is a material memorialization of the embodied work of spinning, for it endures long after the physical activity has itself ceased” (p.247); the raw material is “soaked in labour” (p.247).

How do these material objects extend our sentience and rework it?  The telephone extends hearing, the telescope or microscope, sight; and so on; sentience is now “objectified in language and material objects and is thus fundamentally transformed to be communicable and endlessly sharable” (p.255):

“…human beings project their bodily powers and frailties into external objects such as telephones, chairs, gods, poems, medicine, institutions, and political forms, and then those objects in turn become the object of perceptions that are taken back into the interior of human consciousness where they now reside as part of the mind or soul, and this revised conception of oneself—as a creature relatively untroubled by the problem of weight (chair), as one able to hear voices coming from the other side of a continent (telephone)….is now actually ‘felt’ to be located inside the boundaries of one’s own skin where one is in immediate contact with an elaborate constellation of interior cultural fragments that seem to have displaced the dense molecules of physical matter” (p.256).

The object returns to us; sentience itself is reworked. Words also become external objects in which we invest our sentience: the words we speak and write are grounded in our bodies, and assume a physical form, whether through the voice which speaks words or the movements of our hands and fingers to produce writing. Words spoken involve breath and vibration. The writer holds the pen in her hand or types at the computer; fingers, tendons, muscles, wrapped around bone, enclosed in skin, produce letters, whether in digital form or as traces of ink. In this way a song or a poem, a stitched fabric of words, is also a material artefact which goes out into the world, and then returns.

Scarry’s discussion of the artefact as lever is carried out within her larger consideration of the ways in which torture and war “unmake” the world, attempt to destroy and take apart objects, institutions, language itself. The artefact plays an important role in the aftermath, in the making or remaking of this damaged world. In particular, she emphasizes the artefact as “lever,” with powers of projection and reciprocation.

Projecting human sentience into objects, an awareness, a knowledge of human needs, is only one part of the equation. Second, comes reciprocation: we can then think of the artefact as a lever or fulcrum, that moves this force of creation back again from itself, from the external or natural world, to human beings, recreating, remaking, extending our powers. This holds for a single poem, or an entire library; Scarry is wide-ranging in her embrace of all kinds of human artefacts, from common domestic objects such as the clothespin, the chair, the cloth, to the polis or nation-state and even the Judeo-Christian God (an act of collective human imagining). She observes that this reciprocation is almost always magnified. 

This is where the coat and its relation to the poem, comes into her argument.

She asks us to consider a coat made by a woman called Mildred Keats: she spends 2 weeks making the coat, but wears it for 20 years (here is the magnification effect of the artefact as lever). The 2 weeks of physical discomfort while she sews the coat are repaid many times by the warmth and mobility it provides her, thus freeing up her awareness of her body and its needs so that she can work on other aspects of world-making.

Similarly, John Keats writes a poem. He projects his own private thoughts and emotions into the poem (if inevitably imprinted by the discursive context in which he writes); it is printed, circulated, and now exists in the world of material objects for us to read. Perhaps it takes him 3 hours to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” It is still with us almost 200 years later. Each time it is read, “its power now moves back from the object realm to the human realm where sentience itself is remade” (p.307). We breath into his words, give them life; and they work on us too, reworking our consciousness.

This is a modest claim, then, for poems as artefact-levers, like coats, which are projected out into the world, and then return, magnified, modifying consciousness through time.

the poem as artefact that bears traces of its own making

January 24, 2013 § 4 Comments

It is also possible to think of a poem as a material artefact, whether constructed out of sound, or the letters of the alphabet, which function as a fossilized notation of sound. Jane Hirshfield’s observation on the experience of speaking or reading a poem is again useful:

“Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhythms present at that poem’s conception. We breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer’s physical experience comes into us when we read her poem.” [1]

She reminds us that words have a physical origin, anchored in the body of the poet. Nor is it incompatible to think of a poem as both material artefact and living flesh; the poem as material artefact is a projection of the human being (the human body) into the world—a projection of sentience, moral perception, emotion, idea—in a form which can now be shared with others, and which can last through time, working on the world as other tools of our material culture do—which then, as Marx and Scarry note, rework our own sentience, our own selves.

Hirshfield also reminds us of this material nature of the poem—the poem as artefact—when she observes how the effect of time alters our perception of it. Strangeness in the language of a poem as it ages through time functions as a kind of patina for future readers, a historical ‘signature’:

“When an original grows old, its dated words and syntax serve as a kind of watermark. Age in itself gives substance—what has lasted becomes a thing worth keeping. An older poem’s increasing strangeness of language is part of its beauty, in the same way that the cracks and darkening of an old painting become part of its luminosity in the viewer’s mind: they enter not only the physical painting, but our vision of it as well.” [2]

To describe a poem as we might a painting helps us to remember that, however ephemeral or immaterial a poem may seem, it is still a physical thing that can work on the world as much as a telescope or a microscope, tools which help to extend our range of sight. As an object which can hold and share a human’s perceptions and sensations with others, even those who live far in the future, the poem might be described as analogous to a container or vessel—it carries some essence or knowledge of the poet, knowledge which was once restricted to the borders of the poet’s body, but can now be shared.[3]

Another analogy I have suggested is that of a woven cloth, composed of many disparate threads. I am sympathetic to this comparison because of the work I did with “Karyotype.” Some of the poems in the sequence describe the cloth worn by the people of the Tarim Basin, and use the language of woven cloth—warp, weft, plain weave, selvedge—a vocabulary which reminds us of the complex work of weaving, a skill that was once essential to know in order to provide clothing, blankets, and other household textiles for your family, but is now almost a forgotten skill due to the industrialization of the process. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out, we are hardly even aware of the fact that most of our clothing is still made from woven cloth, and that the ancient patterns can still be seen in the plain weave of our cotton shirts, the twill of our jeans.

The poem-as-woven-cloth analogy also reminds us of the work and care that goes into making a poem. It reminds us that a poem bears the marks of the labour that went into its making. Just as a piece of cloth can be read for clues as to how it was made (the width of cloth produced by a portable loom; the kind of selvedges; patterns such as twill or plaid or plain weave; the smooth or rough transition from one colour or pattern to the next), so does a poem (the metre as the warp across which the rhythm is weft; choice of line endings in tension with syntax; formal and aural repetitions; transitions from one stanza to the next, from octave to sestet, and so on); these clues also tell us something of the skill of the maker.

I find it very difficult, excruciating, in truth, to look at my poems for this reason—I see the awkward transitions, the slips, the failures of technique, raw places where I could have done better. A poem is never finished; there is always more work to do.

Take for example ‘Karyotype XVI’:

XVI

Running the length of the skinny
little body, the narrow cloth
is wrapped, the tan warp tucked across

her like the threads of a cocoon,
as she is waiting to emerge
from her long sleep. Moon-

face in her pod of softest brown
stitched closed with carved bone pins,
the mottled wasp-nest skull

and tapered form
so carefully framed with selvedges
and checks, as if a young woman

made this as she learned to weave,
a sampler gangly as the child
she had to wrap so carefully and leave

in the cold ground, her child.

[This poem first appeared in Event Magazine;
my thanks to the editors.
]

I find it almost unbearable to read for the technical errors I see shot through it. I worry about the line breaks in the first stanza, and the way the sentence breaks across the first stanza into the second. Why end the first line on “skinny”? Why end the third line on “tucked across” and place “her” at the beginning of the fourth line? It could easily go at the end of the third line as a downbeat, an extra syllable resulting in a feminine ending, still iambic in sound. I suppose it could be argued the break between the first and second stanzas enacts the warp stretched across a space from life to death, to accommodate the body.

The rhyme throughout is very slant (I was simply aiming for two lines in each stanza to rhyme, at least in part): cloth/across, brown/pins, form/women. And as Mary Kinzie has noted in Poet’s Guide to Poetry, end rhymes are harder to hear if the lines don’t end on the phrase or clause or the close of a sentence, as with enjambed lines the ear is already skipping ahead to the next line to complete the syntactical construction. I’m not sure if I like the repetition of the phrase “so carefully,” one to refer to the work done on the sampler/shroud, the second to the wrapping of the child’s body in this piece of cloth. The lines don’t scan very smoothly—they are also awkward, although it improves a little towards the end.

There are elements I like as well: the way the penultimate line breaks off at “leave,”—again, the unbearable space between life and death—and the final line resumes after crossing this space, “in the cold ground, her child,” so that “the child” is separated from the mother, as the line orphans her. I like that I attempted to describe the child and her shroud accurately: tan warp, stitched closed with carved bone pins, the mottled wasp-nest skull; the language of weaving and making is merged with natural forms made by insects (cocoon, wasp-nest). So despite the technical errors, I still feel protective towards this ungainly poem, as if it enacts the woven sampler with its awkward transitions that show the inexperience of the maker. The poem seems to me now unwittingly like the cloth sampler it tries to describe.

‘Karyotype XVI’ is based on a photograph and description of the Qäwrighul child in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Mummies of Ürümchi. The photograph shows a child of about eight years old who was wrapped in a shroud of cloth which Wayland Barber reads as a ‘sampler’ because of the evidence she sees  in the traces of its making, traces that show the weaver was inexperienced: uneven colour zones, haphazard transitions, “but that is how one learns.” Wayland Barber speculates that perhaps the young woman who wove the cloth eventually used it—perhaps now a piece of scrap cloth—to wrap her child in before placing her in the grave.

I tried to write this poem a second time, outside of the Karyotype sequence. I decided for the second attempt to use blank verse, and to try to describe the sampler in more detail—the oatmeal and tea-coloured patches, Barber’s technical analysis of the work. This time I was more conscious of the comparisons that could be drawn between the inexperienced work of the woven cloth, and the writing of the poem as artefact—as made object that bears traces of its own making.

[1] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.7-8.

[2] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.67.

[3] Ursual K. Leguin explores this analogy as it relates to narrative fiction in her essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

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