Bashing on Aristotle has become a fond pastime since the Scientific Revolution, but the mere fact that he was wrong about many, many things isn’t enough to explain the repulsion he attracts, nor my own persistent lack of interest in him. Laura Riding, in Lives of Wives, portrayed a fictionalized Aristotle as prodigious and indefatigable, but also smug, opportunistic, and terminally pedestrian. She’s merely quoting Aristotle’s works here when she has him rebut Plato, but does so in a way to highlight some of his most unflattering traits:
‘Is this not to put philosophy in place of the laws,’ asked Aristotle, ‘and make philosophic justice a rival to legal justice? Should we not use philosophy to strengthen the laws rather than to compete with them?’
Laura Riding, Lives of Wives
His Poetics is one of the earliest works of literary criticism that have come down through the ages. It gets Oedipus Rex completely wrong, but nonetheless, Aristotle’s aesthetics held great sway well beyond the point that his physics did. None of that is Aristotle’s fault, but I think it’s a good indicator of how the appearance of systematic, elegant thought can trump the reality of sloppiness and fiat, not only in a work’s own time but for centuries thereafter.
Kenneth Rexroth’s passionate assessment of the Poetics may be roughshod, but it hits on something quite profound about Aristotle’s sensibility and its virtues and defects–that only someone so shallow in sensibility should cast such a wide-ranging net over the founding of logic and various sciences, for a keener mind would have fallen into the many hopeless conundrums that Aristotle rather blithely passed by and considered, if not settled, at least untroubling. It substantially lines up with Laura Riding’s assessment: he organized better than he analyzed.
Around each of the key words of Aristotle’s short definition of tragedy the most violent controversies have raged, and to this day no two translators or commentators agree on the meanings of all of them. If Greek tragedy is the etherialization of myth, Aristotle’s little essay–it is not really booklength–on tragedy is something like myth itself. It has functioned as a myth of criticism, the subject of innumerable etherializations….
There is no evidence in the Poetics that Aristotle possessed any sensitivity to the beauties of poetry as such. Although the Poetics is concerned almost exclusively with tragedy, Aristotle had less of what we call the tragic sense of life than almost any philosopher who ever lived, less even than Leibniz with his “best of all possible worlds.” Aristotle was an optimist. Leibniz’ judgment never entered his mind. The world he studied was simply given. It was not only the best, it was the only one possible. There was nothing in the human situation that could not be corrected by the right application of the right principles of ethics, politics, and economics. Even Plato, who banned the poets from the Republic, and in the Laws permitted only happy, patriotic plays to be performed by slaves, had a greater awareness of the meaning of tragedy–which is precisely why he banned it….
The Poetics is a textbook of the craft of fiction and as such it is far more applicable to the commercial fiction of modern magazines than to Greek tragedies. It has been called a recipe book for detective-story writers. Actually the fictions that come nearest to meeting Aristotle’s specifications are the standard Western stories of the pulp magazines. These are not to be despised. Ernst Haycox and Gordon Young raised the American Western story to a very high level. Year in, year out, Western movies are better than any other class of pictures. The great trouble with Haycox and Young is that they were rigorously Aristotelian and therefore ran down into monotonously repeated formulas. It is hard to think of any other kinds of fiction, either novels or dramas, which do exemplify the Poetics. The neoclassic theater of Corneille and Racine or Ben Jonson is governed by rules which are pseudo-Aristotelianism, the invention of Renaissance critics….
By katharsis Aristotle means the same thing that we mean when we say “cathartic.” His attitude toward the arts was not at all that they were the highest expression of mankind, but that they served as a kind of medicine to keep the ordinary man who lived in the world between the machines of meat– the slaves–and the philosophers who spent their time thinking about first principles; free from emotions, and hence motives, that would disrupt the social order. Like Freud after him, Aristotle’s esthetics are medical. What the Poetics says in the last analysis is, “Timid, sentimental, and emotionally unstable people will feel better, and be better behaved, after a good cry on the stone benches of the theater.” This is an esthetics identical with that of the child psychologists who are hired to apologize for lust and murder on television. There is never a hint in Aristotle that tragedy is true.
The Poetics could have been written substantially unchanged if Aristotle had never seen a Greek tragedy. The imaginary tragedy which could be deduced from the Poetics resembles the commercial fictions of our day for a very simple reason. It is a projection of the ordinary mind, the same then as now. It is the kind of play Aristotle himself would have written if he had possessed, not the genius of Sophocles, but the learned talents of an ordinary craftsman. It is the kind of play that a highly competent academic philosopher, biologist, physicist, or psychologist would write today.
Kenneth Rexroth, More Classics Revisited
Rexroth’s critique here, of the supposedly profound thinker revealed to be conventional and conservative, elevated only by the breadth and depth of his conservatism, is surprisingly representative of a fictional figure who is portrayed in similarly scathing terms: Arnheim in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.
Myles Burnyeat presents a more substantial variation on this general argument, focusing on Aristotle’s comparative embrace of accepted opinions (endoxa):
Aristotle is unique among ancient philosophers in his respect for people’s opinions: both the opinions of other philosophers and the opinions of the ordinary man. He does not defend a ‘common sense’ philosophy in the manner of G.E. Moore, but if something is believed by absolutely everyone, then, he holds, it must be true. Aristotle also does something that a 20th-century philosopher like Moore could never have dared. He establishes science on the basis of the opinions of ‘the majority’ and of ‘the wise’….
Aristotle’s official methodology implies that if the stock of available endoxa were significantly different, the conclusions of his dialectic would be different too. How then can he claim that his conclusions are true?…
Consider some of the conclusions for which Aristotle argues with the help of some of the opinions which were accepted and esteemed in his day. Slavery is just; the world is eternal and the same things have always existed in it; the atomic theory of matter is defective because it fails to explain the difference between dinner and breakfast. I have of course chosen examples which tell against Ross’s conviction that Aristotle ‘rarely writes what anyone would regard as obviously untrue’. But the point of choosing them is to raise the question whether reputable opinion can fulfil the heuristic and evidential role that Aristotelian philosophy assigns to it….
The fact that a proposition is believed by the majority or by experts is not for Aristotle just a sign that, if we asked them, they could cite evidence for the proposition. Their belief, as he treats it, is already some evidence in favour of what they believe; even if the opinion is not correct, it is likely to contain an element of truth which the dialectic can sift out and formulate clearly….
The appeal to ‘our’ beliefs, ‘our’ intuitions, ‘our’ way of speaking, is as common in philosophy today as it was earlier in the century, and Aristotle’s name is still frequently invoked to show that opinion of one sort or another is a reputable basis for philosophy to start from. The irony is that if Aristotle’s professed methodology was sound, there would be little to add to The Complete Works of Aristotle.
Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday is one of the best works of poetry criticism I’ve read in some time. Phillips spins a philosophical construction around the work of four 20th century American poets–Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill–and draws out some significant unifying threads in their treatment of time. Though her method is one of close reading supplemented by biographical detail, there is a much heavier conceptual infrastructure than one finds in most contemporary poetry criticism, which tends to focus on linguistic assemblage above all else. This is much to the book’s credit. It’s a book I can engage with on the level of life.
The concern here is time, and specifically differing human conceptions of time. As concerns go, it is about as fundamental and structural as one can get: Erich Auerbach, Georges Poulet, and Paul Ricoeur all have written on how conceptions of time can act as generative and differentiating forces in literature and human life, and how they affect time’s subjective twin, memory.
Poets who can grasp, wrangle, and mangle our sense of time out of any familiar state–such as Euripides, Lucretius, Persius, Lucan, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Coleridge, David Jones, Laura Riding, Ingeborg Bachmann–are exceedingly rare. More common are those who implicitly adopt the position of Wyndham Lewis, who saw time as a drag on creativity and creation and sought an absolutist spatial view of the cosmos, which usually results in sterilized art. Opposed to this was James Joyce, who saw space and time in as interrelated a way as Einstein, and about whom more later, for he is pivotal.
The book is densely argued and I will not attempt to discuss all the nuances here. Rather, I want to try to draw some of her threads together with some that come from my rather more gloomy post-European viewpoint.
Phillips focuses on a particular and idiosyncratic view of time that she draws out of the four poets, one of “creative repetition,” embracing variation in repeated habitual patterns in life, in place of existentialist finality or chasing the rainbows of epiphany. She is excellent on Frost and how this vision of time makes it such that the tragedy in his life can seem muted in his poetry, even in the circumspection of “Home Burial.” She discusses “A Servant to Servants”:
Here, though, Frost also suggests the deathly power of blame; the servant’s bitter afterthought to “through,” in which she vaguely foresees that “they’ll be convinced” when she is gone, reinforces a connection between assignment of guilt and acceptance of mortality. Fault-finding traps one in the submissive regimen of “A Servant to Servants,” lamenting what one will not change and “doing / Things over and over that just won’t stay done.” These “rounds” show what could easily become of the “over and over” in “In the Home Stretch”: without the deliberate decision to rend each day’s bread or recite each evening’s not-new song, without the self-aware agreement to refuse ends and intentions, everyday repetitions can seem no more than the senseless anticipation of complete insentience.
Though not mentioned explicitly, Phillips does seem to be addressing the ancient Greek contrast between chronos and kairos. Chronos is time in the regular order of things, measured and constant, while kairos is time more in the sense of a time, a particular special moment that in some way defies the march of time. Kairos is the root of revelation, epiphany, peak experiences, crisitunity, and Badiou’s event.
Phillips uses Kierkegaard’s affirmation of repetition as a way for a person to “become what he is,” and links this to C.S. Peirce‘s “tendency to take habit” and similar pragmatist strains in William James and Dewey. The pragmatist links stress how particularly American such analysis of habit is. Although Hume among others spoke of habituated behavior and thought, it was Peirce and those he influenced who elevated habit to the level of a benevolent organizing force. (Hume is too much a curmudgeon to endorse it so wholeheartedly.) Closely related to this is the resistance to any finalized abstraction, abstraction being mitigated by the variation in the everyday particulars. (Dena Shottenkirk aptly links this to nominalism.)
To the extent that Phillips is tracing an American poetic evolution that originates from Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson, she explores a territory that is closest to the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has focused on American transcendentalism and what he terms “Emersonian moral perfectionism,” a sort of endless striving toward the “unattained but attainable self,” in Emerson’s words.
Phillips’ central conceit of creative repetition may be a quasi-rebuttal to Cavell, an Emersonian imperfectionism. Yet her project, if I read her right, is fundamentally affirmative, to seek in a series of repetitions with variations a kind of unending creativity that allows for a sanctification of daily life. A method in which the routine becomes a sustaining creative ritual without a fixed telos.
I admit I do not feel much of a connection to Frost or Merrill’s poetry. While Stevens and Bishop are not among my favorite 20th century American poets (I prefer Laura Riding, Weldon Kees, Lorine Niedecker, and William Bronk), I do find much more in their work that is close to me. Phillips’ brief treatments of Robert Hass, John Ashbery, and Frank Bidart in the conclusion are so incisive I wish she had written more about them. The subject at hand is large enough to be inexhaustible in its poetic and cultural linkages.
I think Phillips succeeds best in evoking everyday kairos with Stevens, though this may be due to my own poetic preferences. But both Stevens’ life and his poetry seem especially suited to the task of bringing inspiration out of routine.
In his daily poetry, Stevens confronts and ultimately refuses the choice between two terms: he describes how the diurnal interdependence of human and natural time can manifest a recurrent interplay of creativity and empiricism. Everyday repetition can be a “Song of Fixed Accord,” to use the title of a lovely and neglected late poem that could well evince the lessons of a lifetime’s routines. In this work, a dove on a roof at dawn finds the “ordinariness” of “the sun of five, the sun of six” to be “a fixed heaven” (Collected, 441), and this paradisiacal consistency allows her expectant “hail-bow” to the coming light, a reverent lyric “pip[ing]” that equates acknowledgment of external event with affirmation of internal conception. Her music could assuage the misery of another Stevensian bird, therefore, “The Dove in Spring” whose “bubbling before the sun” keeps “seeking out his identity // In that which is and is established” (Collected, 461). If Stevens perceives the discontent in this seeking, his dawn “Song” shows that he also perceives a solution. The accord of Stevens’s dailiness lets an “established” world return one’s own self-definition.
Phillips finds biographical evidence for just this sort of outlook–a sort of constantly reconditioned optimism–in Stevens’ correspondence:
When he writes in a 1940 letter, for example, that socialist aims are possible “within the present framework,” this opinion may not just show the conservatism of a middle-class executive but also bespeak a precise trust in what Stevens takes the framework to be (Letters, 351). His faith can nonetheless appear hollow, certainly, and the choice to “play” reality as one’s own dream can seem like a willed self-delusion—the pretense that Stevens recommends in a late letter when he admits that while things “never go well . . . you have to pretend that they do” (Letters, 866). Yet he adds in this letter that “good fortune can be worth it,” a statement suggesting the rewards as well as the rigor of the process. If one can see the solar “fortuner” of Crispin’s quotidian as one’s own imagined “good fortune,” one can achieve a happiness more resilient than any promised by politics. One can find a “peace, a security, a sense of good fortune and of things that change only slowly,” as Stevens writes in another correspondence, “so much more certain than a whole era of Communism could ever give” (Letters, 609– 10). Stevens ultimately has “no sympathy with communism, instead of expectation,” as he writes in a letter, because communism forbids the best sort of expectation (Letters, 350). In place of the unreliable teleology of political systems, as well as the illusory teleology of religious creeds, he offers his generation the certain futurity that is available in common life.
Phillips bring out the fundamentally stoic and Epicurean mentality that sustains Stevens’ conception. The contrast with British and Irish writers of the period is quite drastic: where Yeats and Woolf tend to speak of a conflict with time that ends in slow defeat (in Yeats) or a futile but noble struggle (in Woolf’s The Waves), the confluence of kairos and chronos in the American poets refracts this dilemma into a near-denial of the finality and fixity of death. In Frost and especially Stevens, Phillips forcefully foregrounds this sensibility–and its attendant problems. Her discussion of “The Auroras” is one of the strongest passages in the book, discussing the wear and tear on one’s identity wrought by the tension between legacy and reinvention. I have to quote it at length:
One may consider the gravity of a human condition, that is, to be neither the “clipped” relation of the “Comedian” nor the tragic doom of the “Anglais”; rather, one’s life may be simply a part of the world’s ordinary pattern. Stevens shows the mental effort of such commonplace “reflection” in “The Auroras of Autumn,” canto 9, when the speaker follows the barrenness of bare trees and evening wind with the belief that what ever is imminent, however disastrous, “may come tomorrow in the simplest word, / Almost as part of innocence, almost / Almost as the tenderest and the truest part” (Collected, 362). Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. This crucial “tomorrow” enlarges Stevens’s everyday mode beyond the limits of individual existence to deny that individual death is a meaningful termination.
This “tomorrow,” though, must enlarge Stevens’s everyday habits as well— and to potentially fearful proportions. In order to submerge personal life in the larger rounds of an impersonal earth, one’s desire for tomorrow and willing of what is to come must accord with what “An Ordinary Evening” calls the “will of necessity, the will of wills”: one must expect and accept one’s own elimination (Collected, 410). Freud provides a version of this very yearning in the death wish, and Stevens describes something similar at several points— the “monotonous babbling in our dreams” that Crispin fears, for instance, or the id-like “subman” of “Owl’s Clover,” or even the “cozening and coaxing sound” of sleep in “An Ordinary Evening” (Collected, 32, 167, 411). But Stevens is not content with, compulsive wish fulfillment, as he suggests with his reference to “terrible incantations of defeats” in “Men Made Out of Words” (Collected, 310). Rather, he would make defeat into victory, unwitting incantation into active anticipation; he would consciously yearn for the end of consciousness. He would join the unending repetitions of the nonhuman less in capitulation than in conquest.
He would acknowledge, moreover, the high cost of that conquest: an evacuation of memory. With this, the “tomorrow” of “The Auroras” includes a difficulty that is less pressing in the springs and mornings of “Notes”; the speaker of the latter poem must eradicate the sense of having been that manifests a division from the world’s “new-come bee” (Collected, 338). “Farewell” to that sense, the work begins; farewell to the past; farewell to all reminders of “something else, last year / Or before” (Collected, 356). The repeated goodbyes of “The Auroras” render yesterday no more than “an idea.” They elegize elegy, one might say, using the genre’s characteristic repetitions to erase rather than to preserve. Stevens had long suggested that “practice” for death, in “a world without heaven to follow,” must be the “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” that an earlier poem describes, and he repeats in “Notes” the importance of constantly “throw[ing] off ” what one has (Collected, 104, 330). “I think only too often,” Stevens writes in a letter of the same period, “that what we constantly need is a fresh start— a fresh start every day, like a clean shirt” (Letters, 454). By the time of “The Auroras,” however, Stevens’s adieus are both more difficult and more consequent, and Stevens now writes in a letter that he would like to “throw away everything I have, each autumn” (Letters, 659). The speaker of the poem would go at least as far, casting off not just a possession or event but an entire personhood: the very idea, self-constitutive and self- confirming, of an individual history. However much one hopes otherwise, this identity cannot be preserved; neither a mother’s adulation nor a father’s authority will survive the changes of fate. One must abandon these narcissistic props, forgo this singular yesterday, and give up the assumption that life is a scripted story designed by parental solicitude. The only true theater is the indifferent, impersonal flux of the northern lights themselves, and this earthly transience will destroy the “scholar of one candle”: the distinct self, holding his own light, who sees the fires of necessity “flaring on the frame / Of everything he is” (Collected, 359).
“And he feels afraid,” Stevens adds; “The Auroras” presents the greatest risk in his poetry. Yet it presents the greatest reward as well. When he bids farewell to the idea of a “single man” and his single life story, Stevens finds a new identity and a new past. If one no longer seeks to retain a specific history, the poem shows, a changeful fate no longer seems like vituperative opposition but appears, rather, to be the object of one’s quest. Free of human parentage, free of a particular childhood, the poet can take necessity itself as both birthright and heritage, thereby discovering the security that he had thought sacrificed. He might inhabit the “transparen[t] . . . peace” of a childhood union and meet the reassuring beneficence of a “mother’s face” (Collected, 356). These are the very “purpose of the poem,” “The Auroras” suggests, and their “vivid transparence” and “peace” provide a purpose for “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” too, since the earlier poem anticipates the same in the crystalline harmony of its conclusion (Collected, 329). In canto 8 of “The Auroras,” one may finally “partake thereof,” lying down as if “awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,” listening as an “innocent mother” sings a lullaby that “create[s] the time and place in which we breathed” (Collected, 361). The scene offers a childhood paradise remade; Eden is no longer a faraway garden from which one has been exiled but the innocence of one’s present setting— as well as of any possible “imminence.”
What’s striking is how quintessentially American Stevens’ attitude is. In a line from Emerson, there is the assurance, more or less, that things will go on as they have been, unaffected by outside circumstances, and open to some extent to autonomous change. This all too aptly befits the geographically insulated United States. I think it also explains the bizarre displacement and anonymity of Stevens’ war poetry, which James Longenbach says shows “Stevens the reductionist.” When writing of “a generation that does not know itself,” Stevens was writing of himself vis a vis the world outside daily routine. In light of Phillips’ discussion, I realize I find much of Stevens’ war poetry unsuccessful because the subject matter does not fit Stevens’ worldview.
I think this brings up a fundamental paradox and one that really is a specifically American paradox. It may be a cliche to say that the United States’ youth, geographical isolation, and absence of history make erasure easier and more common, but it is one that seems compellingly true. This erasure can even be an aspect of one’s destiny. It is a “letting go” that I really do not see in much European literature; only the spiritual rebirth one sees in Dostoevsky seems to come close. But here, as Phillips points out, it is not dramatic, but quotidian. Stevens’ proto-Ashbery “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” embodies this Emersonian imperfectionism as well as any poem I can think of, incessantly throwing out modest ideas and images that do not seek to overwhelm their predecessors, nor enact a final transcendence (it’s “toward,” not “of”).
In the best cases, Phillips writes, the erasure does not take place, but the past is accepted with a certain contingency, a conditioning with a possibility for change. This is a delicate balance. The challenge of retaining one’s memory (i.e., legacy) while modestly creating one’s self anew out of the same materials is not an easy one. I do not think Bishop reaches it more than rarely, but Phillips has convinced me that Stevens often did:
Penelope’s modest “talk . . . to herself,” repeating the name of what is to come, presents yet another instance of the proper nominations possible through iterative practice. Her speech is one more revision of Crispin’s realistic “syllables,” perhaps, and one more idiom or song or hum of the earth’s innocence. Like the best blazons in Stevens’s work, which anticipate a supremacy as repetitive as the process towards it, Penelope’s nominations expect something as “patient” as she. The poem, then, finds a denouement that refuses conclusion without trailing off into inconclusiveness; the steady acceptance of real time is the steady deepening of imaginative triumph. That triumph inheres, moreover, in routines one already performs, routines as “mere” as combing one’s hair. Any everyday process can be the heroic mastery of repetition that Stevens describes in “Notes” or the sovereign rule of reality that he describes in “An Ordinary Evening.” More simply and accurately, any everyday process can be that “confidence in the world” that Stevens notes in a late lecture, citing Paulhan once again: to “stop to consider what a happy phrase that is,” Stevens writes, is to “wonder whether we shall have the courage to repeat it, until we understand that there is no alternative” (Collected, 864–65). Penelope’s daily meditation, courageously repeating what is necessary, demonstrates this ordinary understanding.
Yet I think a certain sort of American myopia persists in two ways even in these best of cases. First, politically: geopolitical isolation and American individualism, as above. Second, generationally. Whether the poets have children (Frost and Stevens) or not (Bishop and Merrill), a cross-generational focus is blatantly absent in their work. Here time appears symmetrical: the absence of a past makes it far more difficult to conceive of a future. Instead, one’s extensions into the world end up pointing back at one’s self. In the absence of a dominant collective history, one’s individual history becomes a greater weight.
And Phillips makes one of the most compelling points I’ve seen about Merrill, suggesting that his attraction to the occult methods of organization like Tarot was precisely this sort of repetitive everyday restructuring:
In the words of “To the Reader,” each tomorrow might be proven more “right” by being more “exemplary”—more like an exemplum. The “true-est” individual life may be the one closest to a universal form. Merrill’s respect for such individual conventionalism explains his attention to manners, which he calls an “artifice in the very bloodstream” (Collected Prose, 58), and helps to explain why he can further self-knowledge through a card game: “Last Mornings in California,” for example, links the speaker’s experience to a tarot deck, while other works compare living to a game of patience (Collected Poems, 447–48, 192–94; Sandover, 67–68). Perhaps most important, Merrill’s respect for formal autobiography helps to explain why he wants to tell his story through “conventional stock figures,” as he writes at the start of The Book of Ephraim (Sandover, 4). When McClatchy rightly notes that the child of Water Street often has “a typological rather than an autobiographical emphasis,” one might add that Merrill would often elide the difference (“On Water Street,” 88). Even a draft of “The Broken Home” is labeled “Notes for a Myth” (WU IV.1.a). This myth is a metrical legend, poetic and temporal; as “Verse for Urania” notes, “the first myth was Measure” (Collected Poems, 385– 91). “Rhyme and meter” not only manifest the patterns of “fable[s],” they also inscribe the “conjunctions and epicycles” behind those prototypes, the natural cycles that make “the world go round” as they make human stories repeat. Thus the order of everyday recurrence governs almost every biographical pattern already mentioned.
Standing as a complement to the poets Phillips treats are some of the poets under the “objectivism” rubric: Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker. I say a complement rather than a contrast because these three were all after a sort of kairos as well, and also sought it by first rejecting epiphany. These three shared a tendency to elevate non-epiphanic experience and treat it in as impressionistic a fashion as the most epiphanic moments of Wordsworth. They sometimes negate the temporal aspect that becomes such a problem when dealt with either as finitude or momentariness–at the risk, I think, of the same sterility I mentioned in association with Wyndham Lewis. The objectivists’ subjects tend to be there to revisit, albeit always in different ways. By withdrawing the explicit, never-to-be-reclaimed emotional content traditional to poetry, they provide far more eternal-seeming moments. But the recurrence is wholly implicit and never stated.
Because this sort of imperfectionism is an ongoing process that does not know final success, it brings with it the simple problem of maintenance, the danger of always falling out of the work of renewing the everyday and falling into despair or torpor.
In genuine contrast, and as a model I would wish to put up against those of these four poets, is James Joyce, who put world and family first rather than the individual. As a secular, expatriated Irish ex-Catholic, Joyce came out of a worldview that had an enormous weight of history and culture behind it, in stark contrast to the tabula rasa on which Emerson and Whitman had wrote. (The New World, of course, was not a tabula rasa, but European immigrants certainly treated it as such: it was not their history that was to be found there.) Joyce’s later work rejects epiphany (as A. Walton Litz observes) as an adolescent stage in development, seeking instead a universalization of particulars in all their incompatible variation.
Variation among repetition is central to the entire scheme of Finnegans Wake, but it overlays all variations across peoples and nations over one another simultaneously. To amass such a work, Joyce indeed still required underlying structural principles beyond that which the American poets were ever comfortable embracing. Perhaps history and legacy–the certainty of a past and a future to which one is inextricably and often painfully tied–are necessary in order to legitimate any such large-scale structure. Yet Joyce’s near-eidetic obessiveness that all life be recorded makes impossible the sort of creative affirmation which Phillips finds in Frost, Stevens, Merrill, and sometimes Bishop. Joyce is too deterministic for that.
What I like about The Poetics of the Everyday, which deserves more than the generic blurbs on its back cover, is that it lays bare the conceptual foundations that underpin so much modern American poetry and helps explain why Frost, Stevens, and Bishop were successfully innovative while much recent poetry is not. These conceptual arrangements, which usually go unquestioned, have remained so uniform so as to create a hermetic discourse that has not seriously progressed since the middle of the 20th century. (For the most part, the same goes for prose. As I have said before, such conceptual impoverishment is responsible for the tedium of so much current literature.) Only by taking a more aggressively interrogative tack, as Phillips does here in the spirit of Coleridge, Empson, and Zukofsky, does there seem to be the possibility of a forward progression.
Coarsely abusive sexual language is an early iambic tradition.
Besides being Augustus’s favored poet and composing immaculate and subtle Odes, Horace wrote some rougher-hewn pieces in his series of Epodes (30 BC). The most notorious are the eighth and the twelfth, which are both obscene, misogynistic brushoffs to an older female lover. (In the twelfth, she at least gets in a bit of a riposte at the end.) David Mankin summarizes the eighth as “obscene abuse of a randy old hag” and the twelfth as “further abuse of the old hag.”
Here’s Epode 8 in Niall Rudd’s Loeb translation from 2004, which I take to be a reasonably close paraphrase:
AN OVER-DEMANDING LADY (Niall Rudd)
To think that you, who have rotted away with the long passage of time, should ask what unstrings my virility, when your teeth are black, and extreme decrepitude ploughs furrows on your forehead, and your disgusting anus gapes between your shrivelled buttocks like that of a cow with diarrhea! I suppose I am excited by your bosom with its withered breasts like the udders of a mare, your flabby belly, and your scrawny thighs perched on top of your swollen ankles! Be as rich as you like. May the masks of triumphal ancestors escort your cortege! Let no wife be weighed down with fatter pearls as she walks proudly by! What of the fact that slim Stoic volumes nestle on your cushions of Chinese silk? Does that make my organ (which can’t read) any stiffer, or my phallic charm less limp? To call it forth from my proud crotch you must go to work with your mouth.
Horace seems to be trying to outdo Catullus, but some of it reads like it comes out of a Shakespeare Dark Lady sonnet. The progenitor of this abusive tradition is the mysterious 6th century BC Greek poet Archilochus, who was promoted by Guy Davenport’s translation in 1964 (also see his introduction to Archilochus from 7 Greeks).
Because of Horace’s high profile, these epodes have necessitated being brushed under the rug up until a recent renaissance. In the 1960s, Eduard Fraenkel called them “repulsive,” while Steele Commager just ignored them altogether. The Latin students edition of 1896 omits them rather conspicuously (they’re numbered, after all), which presumably sent more than a few students to the library to locate the missing poems.
Translators, too, historically excluded the problem poems (8 and 12, but also the far less obscene but explicitly gay 11). After Henry Rider omitted them in his 1638 translation of the complete works, the first person to tackle them was Christopher Smart in 1756. (Also available on the web here.) Smart smooths out the obscenity rather cleverly, but still gets the vitriol:
UPON A WANTON OLD WOMAN. (Christopher Smart)
Can you, grown rank with lengthened age, ask what unnerves my vigor? When your teeth are black, and old age withers your brow with wrinkles: and your back sinks between your staring hip-bones, like that of an unhealthy cow. But, forsooth! your breast and your fallen chest, full well resembling a broken-backed horse, provoke me; and a body flabby, and feeble knees supported by swollen legs. May you be happy: and may triumphal statues adorn your funeral procession; and may no matron appear in public abounding with richer pearls. What follows, because the Stoic treatises sometimes love to be on silken pillows? Are unlearned constitutions the less robust? Or are their limbs less stout? But for you to raise an appetite, in a stomach that is nice, it is necessary that you exert every art of language.
(Fascinatingly, in Epode 11, Smart obscures the gender of the speaker’s male lover Lyciscus, while still leaving in the confession of attraction to both sexes.)
Philip Francis (1746) and Bulwer Lytton (1870) also omit the problem poems from their translations.
In his 1901 Latin edition, C.E. Bennett includes them but does not summarize or give any commentary, beyond the statement “The brutal coarseness of this epode leads to omission of an outline of its contents,” though by this point the gay content of 11 poses no problem. He did not translate 8 or 12 for his 1914 Loeb Library edition either, which relegates the Latin versions to an appendix after the other epodes.
In fact, I can’t find a single English translation other than Smart’s prior to 1960, when two appeared, by Joseph P. Clancy and W.G. Shepherd. Neither seems to pull any punches, though Shepherd goes more over the top with flowery language and a Beat-esque poser:
ROGARE LONGO (W.G. Shepherd)
That you, rotten, should ask what it is that emasculates me, when you’ve just one black tooth and decrepit age ploughs up your forehead with wrinkles, when a diarrhoeic cow’s hole gapes between your dehydrated buttocks! What rouses me is your putrid bosom, your breasts like the teats of a mare, the flaccid belly and skinny thighs that top your grossly swollen shanks. Be bless’d, and may triumphant lovers’ likenesses attend your corpse. May no wife perlustrate laden with fatter, rounder pearls than yours. What though Stoic pamphlets like to lie between silken pillows? Illiterate sinews stiffen, and hamptons droop, no less for that. (Though if you hope to rouse up mine, your mouth is faced with no mean task.)
Comparing to Smart’s translation reveals that Smart was quite ingenious with his adjustments. Shepherd also uses a wince-inducing racial epithet in Epode 12, which I will leave to others to comment on. (The American Clancy, in contrast to the British Shepherd, avoids any mention of race at all.) Notably, both are only coy when it comes to the male member (“sinew,” “rod,” Cockney rhyming slang “hampton”), though this is not the case with either translator in Epode 12.
More recent translations follow the same line but make the language a bit plainer. David West’s version (1997) is quite forthright, less self-conscious about the shocking content.
ROGARE LONGO (David West)
You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut, what makes me impotent? And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced in age that wrinkles plough your forehead, your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s between your wizened buttocks. It’s your slack breasts that rouse me (I have seen much better udders on a mare) your flabby paunch and scrawny thighs stuck on your swollen ankles.
May you be blessed with wealth! May effigies of triumphators march you to the grave, and may no other wife go on parade weighed down with fatter pearls!
But why do Stoic tracts so love to lie on your silk cushions? They won’t cause big erections or delay the droop– you know that penises can’t read. If that is what you want from my fastidious groin, your mouth has got some work to do.
Finally, there is classicist John Henderson’s translation. Henderson is noted for a punning deconstructionist critical style (for which he has been taken to task), and he has written a couple essays on Epode 8, though he is clearly wrong to say (a) that all pre-1980 translations were Bowdlerized and (b) that prior to that the two poems were excluded from virtually all Latin editions with commentary.
Ironically, by adopting a declasse anti-authoritarian patois closer to Shepherd than West, Henderson seems to be trying to recapture the original’s shock value by appealing to shocking standards of a past American era: the artful and self-conscious provocations of Shepherd, reveling in obscenity-as-rebellion rather than obscenity-as-ridicule. It’s a strange and anachronistic brew. I suspect that the blase, imperious ridicule of Rudd and West is closer to the original.
Under the headings pun, rhyme, metaphor, and meter I have in fact already been discussing an aspect of poetic language which, since Empson, no treatment of poetics can afford to ignore: ambiguity. For Empson, ambiguity became all but synonymous with the essential quality of poetry; it meant complexity, associative and connotative richness, texture, and the possibility of irony. The ambiguous word proliferated like a vine, wove or revealed hidden strands between the most various and distinct spheres of our prosaically ordered world. By exploiting the ambiguity of words the poet could ironically undercut the surface meanings of his statements, could avail himself fully of the entire field of meanings which a word has and is. I want to shift the stress of Empson’s analysis a little. He made us aware that one word can–and in great poetry commonly does–have many meanings; I would rather insist on the converse, that many meanings can have one word. For the poet, the ambiguous word is the crux of the problem of creating a medium for him to work in. If meanings are primary and words only their signs, then ambiguous words are false; each meaning should have its word, as each sound should have its letter. But if the reverse is true and words are primary–if, that is, they are the corporeal entities the poet requires–then ambiguity is something quite different: it is the fracturing of a pristine unity by the analytic conceptualizations of prose. The poet must assume that where there is one word there must, in some sense, be unity of meaning, no matter what prose usage may have done to break it. The pun is the extreme form of this assumption, positing unity of meaning even for purely accidental homophones, such as the sound shifts of a language will happen to produce.
Ambiguity, then, becomes a test case for the poet; insofar as he can vanquish it–not by splitting the word, but by fusing its meanings–he has succeeded in making language into a true medium; insofar as it vanquishes him, he must abdicate his position as a “maker.” I would say, therefore, that he does not primarily exploit the plurisignations of words, as though they were a fortunate accident; rather he accepts, even seeks out, their challenge, because he knows that in his encounter with them the issue of his claim is finally joined and decided. A pun may be a mere play, a rhyme a mere jingle, even a metaphor only an invitation to conceptual comparisons; true ambiguities are another matter. With them it is not a question of taking two words or meanings and showing how, in some sense, they are one, but rather of taking one word and showing that it is more than a potpourri of the meanings we have a mind to attach to it. Since the poet’s credo must be the opening of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word,” he meets the temptation of meaning ultimately in ambiguity.
Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest” (1956)
Some of this, in its talk about meaning and intention, may read as a bit naive, but I think that’s mistaken. Rather than positing some Platonic meaning that a work aims at, one locked inside the poet’s head, I think Burckhardt means to talk about how there is inescapably the notion of some intent on the creator’s part that a reader has to deal with. There is some particular instantiation of meaning that a poet was working with. The “pristine unity” is private, maybe even an illusion. Meanings may be primary, but they are still private in their particular essence, even if it is by them that we are able to live and function. The writer’s intent is not decipherable or recoverable, but at the same time we do have the fact that such an intent existed at the time of creation. If “intent” and “meaning” are too specific, just take it that there was some unified surplus in the poet’s mind at the time. Some critics try to externalize that surplus onto historical surroundings, about which we know far more; other critics try to minimize the role of that surplus by exploding the amount of sheer ambiguity in the words themselves. Yet the collateral effect is also to dampen a sense of unity. Despite the clear attempts made by critics to reconstruct a more complex unity from the proliferations of meaning, there is a point where such unities are no longer comprehensible or plausible to a lay reader, and so multiplicity rules over unity.
Another irony is how some of those obsessive close reader critics complained about the advent of theory and other cultural readings, as though there were limits to what ambiguity could suggest, when in fact the Ambiguists had opened the door to such diversity in the first place. By positing that any “pristine unity” lay precisely in the multiplicity of meaning, they abdicated their hegemonic throne, a la Richard II. Theorists then made a rear-guard action by reclassifying where the “pristine unity” could be, outside the realm of the text-in-isolation. I love much of the work of the Ambiguists, but they should have seen it coming. They were climbing Jacob’s ladder.
I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:
Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder. Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle; Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung. Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain, Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter; Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes. O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre, Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz, Die ungebornen Enkel.
At nightfall the autumn woods cry out With deadly weapons, and the golden plains The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly Rolls the sun; the night embraces Dying warriors, the wild lament Of their broken mouths. But quietly there in the pastureland Red clouds in which an angry god resides, The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness. All the roads lead to the blackest carrion. Under golden twigs of the night and stars The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads; And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds. O prouder grief! You brazen altars, Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit, The grandsons yet unborn.
(tr. Michael Hamburger)
It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.
On to the review:
Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind. Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.
Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”
Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.
black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,
the black flight of birds always touches
the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .
Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.” It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.
Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.
There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.
The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”
Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.
Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.
One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.
The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.