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Logopoetry IV: The Mandala of Balance (cont'd.)

I recently saw the need to raise the threshold for logopoetry, that is to say, make room for the secondary and tertiary cognition many pieces require. English poetry became poetry mainly as written poetry, if we ignore minstrels and plays. Public readings of poetry were a relatively late development. There was no "spoken poetry scene" until the Beats arrived (a scene now flourishing beyond their dreams), only readings by well-published poets hosted by publishers or universities. Donne's poems, for example, were circulated by hand among court literati. He conceived of his audience as readers, not hearers. And except a crowd had studied his work beforehand or was composed of prodigies, Donne's most exquisite poems would leave most hearers puzzled, hungry for a second reading if not an exposition.

This need for widening of the definition of intelligibility (the first principle of logopoetry) was triggered by a remark from Mark Strand: "In cases where I had to choose from many poems of the same length, as in the sonnet sequence of Spenser or Shakespeare, or in the poems of Emily Dickinson, it was difficult, and the determining factor became the relative accessibility of the particular poem on a first or second reading" (Preface to the Golden Ecco Anthology, 100 Great Poems of the English Language, edited by Mark Strand).

If Strand, whose poetry is for the most part eminently accessible, defines a user-friendly poem as one of "relative accessibility.... on a first or second reading," I think it prudent to remove my earlier insistence that logopoetry be intelligible when spoken aloud on a first reading. I don't think a reader really appreciates Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" until the third read, and there are a great many poems that make sense so exquisitely as to require repeated readings to grasp the argument. But this kind of intelligibility should be contrasted with certain poems by say, Wallace Stevens or Paul Celan, which no matter how many times one reads them, won't yield a definite meaning; these may set off resonances, but should someone ask what the poems intend, the best one can do is recommend reading them.

My last essay introduced the Mandala of Balance, re-printed at right (with graphic help from Beehive). I wrote of how virtue in excess can become vice just as easily as lack of virtue, the old saw of Aristotle's moderation. Of the four primary poles of the mandala, I discussed form and substance, using Gary Snyder and Dylan Thomas as examples of excess and deficits in both. The remaining poles are feeling and meaning.

In reviewing possible examples for an explication of these qualities, I was struck by how inseparable these qualities are. The deepest feeling in a poem is usually linked to the deepest meaning. Where emotion is superficial, so also is meaning; where thought is self-evident, no deep feeling is inspired — with exceptions depending, of course, on context. Meaning and feeling, reason and emotion, intellect and affect, denotation and connotation, are all intertwined in successful poems, so that it takes an arbitrary scalpel to divide them. Bad poems have easy meanings and predictable emotions; good poems have layers of meaning and fresh claims on emotion. My attempt to separate these qualities is thus a dilemma, though from a theoretical standpoint it seems obvious.

I finally decided on a poem by Auden as an example of meaning at the expense of feeling; finding an example of feeling at the expense of meaning has been more difficult. I could easily tag Shelley for "I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!," if only the rest of his poetry revealed consistent aberrations, but it doesn't. Besides, to criticize the enthusiasm of the Romantics would question the sensibility of an age, not a particular poet, and I would like to keep my examples in this century. Ginsberg is tempting in his Whitmanesque, celebratory voice, punctuated with repeated exclamation marks, but the matter he extols seems suited to the voice. I found what I was looking for with regard to feeling in the work of Maya Angelou, though many consider her second-rate, and one doesn't find her poems in the best 20th Century anthologies.

This unexpected eventuality does say something positive about the modern canon, since the missteps in feeling I sought are hard to find in any good anthology. But no one has seen a poet at their worst until they plow through the collected works. I shall proceed Angelou as an example, albeit not one of the first rank.

The obviousness of Angelou's poetic emotion reminds me of the adolescent ramblings of high school students, though certainly more polished. In contrast to the expanded definition of intelligibility above, her poems are nearly always accessible on a first reading and lack the subtlety, in most cases, to merit a second. Although she does not appear in Strand's anthology, nor in my copy (dated) of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, she has, like Frost before her, been invited to read at a presidential inauguration, one measure of popular acclaim (if one ignores the obvious political advantages of inviting a woman of color to read at the inauguration of a white, male southerner). The poem I chose is from her volume, I Shall Not Be Moved (Bantam Books, 1990).

The New House

What words
have smashed against
these walls,
crashed up and down these
halls,
lain mute and then drained
their meanings out and into
these floors?

What feelings, long since
dead,
streamed vague yearnings
below this ceiling
light?
In some dimension,
which I cannot know,
the shadows of
another still exist. I bring my
memories, held too long in check,
to let them here shoulder
space and place to be.

And when I leave to
find another house,
I wonder what among
these shades will be
left of me

The first sign of intemperate use of emotion in art is redundancy, re-stating the same feeling unnecessarily, as in words that have "smashed," "crashed up and down," or "drained their meanings out and into these floors." Such blunt hammerings are not enough for Ms. Angelou, however, as in the second stanza she must define the thing (feelings) again, directly, without the metaphor of words: "What feelings, long since / dead, / streamed vague yearnings / below this ceiling / light?" The title briskly informs us that the speaker contemplates a new residence; she then dwells upon the karmic backwash of previous inhabitants until no one can miss her intent. Notice that where feeling is redundant, so must meaning be, since sense describes, or better, triggers feeling. So, before the next paroxysm of emotion, the poet feels compelled to reiterate that "the shadows of another" still exist in this new domicile. But didn't she tell us that already?

In answer to the rhetorical gauntlet the poet throws herself regarding the house's emotional history, she replies: "I bring my / memories, held too long in check, / to let them here shoulder / space and place to be." "Space and place to be" are certainly redundant, but given the earlier exaggeration of feeling, why should we believe the speaker when she says "memories, held too long in check?" Given her style, emotions in this poem no longer register unless emphasized by repetition, as in, by way of example: "my [moldy, repressed] memories held too long in check?" By setting a standard for expressed emotion above that of a single best formulation, the poet undermines her lines' effect. The last stanza moves the poem on to the more universal theme of arrival and leave-taking, and in its simplicity aims straight for the heart of melancholy, poetic self-pity, or more generously put, the standard poetic lament of man's insignificance vis a vis time and space.

Although Ginsberg, like Whitman, is a master of innocent hyperbole, it is intentional, unlike the emotional redundancy noted above. Here's an example from "HYMMNN" I first considered as qualifying for emotion at the expense of meaning (line 4 ff):

Blessed be He in homosexuality! Blessed be He in Paranoia!
Blessed be He in the city! Blessed be He in the Book!
Blessed be He who dwells in the shadow! Blessed be He!
Blessed be He!
Blessed be you Naomi in tears! Blessed be you Naomi in fears!
Blessed Blessed Blessed in sickness!
Blessed be you Naomi in Hospitals! Blessed be you Naomi in
solitude! Blest be your triumph! Blest be your bars! Blest
be your last years' loneliness!
Blest be your failure! Blest be your stroke! Blest be the close of
your eye! Blest be the gaunt of your cheek! Blest be your
withered thighs!

(From Eight American Poets by Joel Conarroe, Random House, 1994)

Of course, the entire poem does not proceed at this level. But as an opening, this works. Why? First, the literary context: Ginsberg plays off the Psalter and Whitman without apology, stretching their more measured encomiums to Panglossian absurdity, exposing his defense against grief as weak even as he builds it. He is trying to convince himself, else convince us that he is trying to convince himself that "All shall be well," but when he descends to nursery rhymes like "tears" and "fears," it's hard to take seriously. His praise of "He" makes no distinction between traditional interpretations of good and bad fortune, right and wrong, as if to assuage, by Hindu theology, the real feeling he has for his deceased mother.

It is precisely this complexity of emotion, milked by rhetorical devices, in the mouth of a superficially innocent, even naïve speaker, that makes for good poetry in Ginsberg's hands — a roiling surface with dark undercurrents of sense at cross purposes to expected emotion, as in: "Blest be your stroke." On an ultimate, redemptive or karmic level, one might be justified in saying, "Blest be your stroke." Yet the lady doth protest too much here by intention, both self-mocking and somewhat pathetic, so that even in the midst of the rhetorical celebration of all that is, the reader doubts the speaker really believes it. It goes without saying that such a construction is on a different level than telling us (and re-telling us) feelings imagined about the history of a new residence. Ginsberg communicates a depth of emotion by strong contrasts between the pious and the absurd, the spiritual and the material, the speaker's brave proclamation and the underlying grief. In the end the passage strikes me as sad, but this is no simple grief because it is not the work of a simple intelligence. Again, notice how meaning and feeling are inextricably linked. Poetic intelligence cannot be measured by any standard tests because it is an intelligence that grasps meaning and feeling together; one precipitates the other. Feeling gives birth to meaning (the personal interpretation of sense) and meaning to feeling.

I have never been a great fan of Auden. Much of his verse seems reified so far beyond the immediate that it resembles essays to be intellectually digested. Naturally there are exceptions, as his elegy for Yeats or "Musee' Des Beaux Arts," but in his collected works I find a recurrent aridity, an intellectual polish that makes much of his poetry a second-order experience, as opposed to Eliot's formulation: "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." It seems to me that much of Auden's work has to be understood before it can communicate. Here's one example:

Friday's Child

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
martyred at Flossenburg, April 9th, 1945)

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought —
'Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent' —
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what he said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgment Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

(Collected Poems, 1976, Random House, ed. by Edward Mendelson)

Research has shown that an audience is more likely to remember information associated with strong emotion. Isn't that what poetry does? Seize our attention with emotion, sustain our attention with depth of thought? In his less successful poems, it appears to me that Auden tries to seize our attention mainly with thought, and it's not enough.

For those who don't know the story of Bonhoeffer, he was a devout Lutheran minister who wrestled with the question of good and evil until he chose to become part of a plot to kill Hitler. He was caught and executed. But before his death he wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship in which he decries something which he labels "cheap grace." He comes to the conclusion that Christianity requires of its devotees the same sacrifice God displayed toward them through his son, that "cheap grace" means a lack of appreciation, on the believer's part, of what grace cost God: His only Son. Despite his typical German thoroughness in addressing this question, Bonhoeffer, in his book, displays much more passion than Auden does writing about his martyrdom. In fact, despite the dedication, I can't help but feel Auden is using Bonhoeffer to do some clever theologizing in verse. The whole point of view seems removed, processed, packaged, tied with twine into convenient conundrums. Put more directly, this poem doesn't move me. It moves me much less than Bonhoeffer's book did.

Here sense and reason dominate emotion. Emotion comes as a byproduct of deciphering sense. There are no arresting images, excepting perhaps the last stanza, to impart feeling without first understanding. Much of Auden's work simply lacks emotional immediacy, something his contemporary, Dylan Thomas, had in spades.

Even more puzzling, for a poet thought so intellectual, is the fact that he undertakes the tired argument of God's non-interference in human affairs — "How can a good God, etc., etc.?" — without adding anything materially new. And the passion that drove Bonhoeffer to sacrifice his life seems an afterthought. Auden's argument, I submit, is more banal than the God he posits. His only fresh insight, though not entirely new, is the question of how much responsibility God escaped (and thus bequeathed to us) by consenting to crucifixion.

Emotionally, the overall tone of the poem is one of anger toward an impotent God, hardly a new emotion, and not made new by this poem, just dressed up in clever stanzas. I proffer this poem, characteristic of Auden's lesser work, as an example where meaning, the interpretation of sense, has displaced emotional immediacy to such a degree it hardly qualifies as poetry but verse. I doubt very much that Ginsberg or even Eliot would have handled the subject in this way. A better poem might have captured the passion of Bonhoeffer's martyrdom in a way we could more readily receive, else, as the poem stands, given greater vent, like Job, to anger against God. Auden's control is remarkable — and remarkably disappointing for those who seek in poetry something more than the digestion of sense and the faint emotion that results.

In Angelou's poem we saw feeling (and meaning) at an inferior level of expression. In Ginsberg we saw complex feelings achieved through a variety of devices; in Auden's poem we find a superficial complexity of intellectual construction, which, when taken apart, leaves only a rather banal objection, with little engagement of feeling on a primary reading, a feature we have come to expect from good poetry before secondary processes of interpretation begin to take over.

Put another way, Auden's poem has too much logos and not enough Logos, while Angelou's poem diminishes feeling by overstating it with redundant sense. Although I included Ginsberg because I sought to find in his work an excess of emotion, instead I found his art has earned the right to indulge in hyperbole.

This concludes my attempt to posit one paradigm in understanding what makes good poetry good. I am not interested in founding a school of logopoetry, or judging poetry by its tenets; all art must be approached on its own terms. It is only when those terms demand too much of an audience that I might be remembered for advocating a level of intelligibility that engages the audience and allows intelligent discourse. To repeat what I said at the outset, if a poem cannot be discussed in words, it has exceeded its medium. Whoever thinks to go "beyond language" is still slave to its conventional meanings for effects. Why not wear the yoke of our medium's limitations gracefully?

      — C.E. Chaffin