“Church Bell” does not capture that sound that you hear.

When we first began looking at the language poets and their examination of what, precisely, language is and does, I was a little bit skeptical of the work we were reading. I understand the concept that language is highly limited, and I actually love that idea, but I couldn’t quite let go of the fact that language can still be so very beautiful, something that a lot of experimental poets or poems don’t seem to be concerned with.

However, reading Jorie Graham’s work was quite another experience. I particularly enjoyed her poem “The Swarm,” which experiments with the idea of words as referents for objects and language and sound as being unable to convey or accomplish certain things.

One of the first things I noticed as I read the poem is the presence of the word “listen” in the first line, and the word “hear” in the last. I think these words frame the poem quite well – not only is the person to whom the speaker is speaking supposed to listen for the church bells, but we are to listen to the poem. I also like that “listen,” a request, comes first, and “hear,” the action, later, as if the speaker’s request to listen to the church bells mirrors Graham’s “request” to listen to her poem.

Another conspicuous move Graham makes is the omission of the sounds of the church bells in the fifth stanza. Rather than attempting to capture the sound of the ringing in letters, she simply leaves a blank where the word or sound would go. She does reference each chime of the bell as a petal falling, however, which interestingly has no sound at all. In that same stanza Graham uses the word “yes” six times, the first in parentheses, the next following “like a vertebrate,” and the last four making up their own line with nothing else, including punctuation. These “yesses,” which seem to be the affirmation of the voice on the telephone that they can hear the bells, actually seem to be the closest Graham gives us to the sound of the bells themselves. It’s interesting that we don’t even know whether or not the person has heard the bells – in fact, we never hear from the person directly – and yet their affirmation, or at least what the speaker hopes to hear from them, is the closest we can get to hearing their sound. The form of the last line, “yes yes yes yes,” is written like an echo as a bell would be, but clearly the sound itself isn’t captured.

In the stanzas to follow, the most noticeable repetition is of the word “blue.” It is used six times before the end of the poem, often in ways that don’t make a lot of logistical sense, for instance, in “something announces itself/ like a piece of the whole blueness broken off and thrown down…” However, the reader can’t help but hear the sound of the word over and over (six times in twelve lines, two of those lines containing the word twice). I think this goes back to Graham’s instruction to “listen” and her question at the end of whether or not we “hear” – like the echo of “yes” as the speaker tries to get her or his companion to hear the bells in order to feel together, we are given the repetition of “blue” not so much for the word itself as for the echo and connection it brings.

The last thing I wanted to point out is just something I loved about Graham’s language – in the eighth line from the end of the poem, the speaker refers to the telephone as “the plastic parenthetical opening wherein I have you.” I love that description that so carefully balances the idea of plastic, something hard and impersonal, with a “parenthetical opening,” which for me creates the image of a curve (presumably the mouthpiece) mimicking one half of a parentheses – one half on each side of the ocean, with a relationship filling the space between even though physical proximity isn’t possible. It’s a beautiful idea.

 

I’d be interested to see what other people thought about Graham’s experiments with language – is her balance between words as beautiful and flawed believable? Do her omissions and echoes work?  Is her work an experiment in the first place?

The Futility of Language

Creeley is a rare case among poets in that he dares to explore what many writers will not admit – the futility of language to express what is most intensely human. Language is so often seen as the primary method by which we express ourselves and by which we are connected, and it is difficult for one whose life is based on that idea and the craft of words to look it straight in the face and even more so to write about it.

This past week I had the opportunity to hear one of our Semana Poetica poets (Marica Bodrozic) speak in my German class, and it seems that much of her thinking might be applied to Creeley’s thoughts. One of her comments that struck me most was that “when you don’t understand, you still understand something.” It seems strange that a poet, whose job is generally to convey meaning in some way through language, would suggest that sometimes not understanding is best. Marica’s indication that there is something to be learned from a lack of understanding itself indicates that there is something besides words at work in a successful poem; it is not always imperative that we understand the words to capture the emotion or human element in a poem. When asked what her inspirations are, Marica explained that there were many, but finished by saying simply that she is “interested in people.” She writes to capture stories, and stated that “memory is not truth, it is invention,” indicating that the facts are of less importance than the essence of a person or a moment. She commented also that she is against structured interpretation and that there is “no answer, just a way” in interpreting a poem, which seems to suggest to me a surrender of imposing a meaning on her readings in favor of extending them an invitation to join her on an exploration of humanity that leaves behind the words on the page.

Creeley seems to run into a similar issue with his poems in that he cannot make his words capture precisely the correct emotion, particularly regarding love. Altieri’s article dicusses this concept in rather dark terms, stating that because of this lack of perfect precision in language that “language itself is one of the primary villains, for it promises a wholeness it cannot fulfill… The words stand emptied of us…” (Altieri 174). Altieri cites Creeley’s poem I Know a Man to support this concept, looking to the “angsty” tone and the language (for example, sd and yr for said and you’re) to connect Creeley’s frustrations with language to the void created by Creeley’s struggle to pin down his identity.

I wonder, however, if Altieri is entirely correct in his gloomy view of language as a villain. Looking at Creeley’s poem Language, he seems less ready to condemn than to lament. Language opens with the command to “Locate I/ love you some-/ where in// teeth and/ eyes,” and it closes with the statement that “Speech/ is a mouth.” These lines suggest that the words we say are reduced, ultimately, to their physical existence as sounds created by the body. The words “I love you” are located not in the heart or the soul but in the purely physical teeth and eyes. Speech itself is not only just located in the mouth, but it IS a mouth; words are confined in some way to their origin. The lines “you/ want so// much so / little.” are ambiguous but seem to suggest that what the lover wants, which appears here to be to hear the words “I love you,” is at once everything and nothing. The meaning of the words would be so much; the word themselves are so little. Creeley’s next line is “words say everything,” but followed by “I/ love you/ again,” and then a question – “what/ is emptiness/ for. To// fill, fill.” Were we to read these lines literally we might think that Creeley would have us believe that words truly are everything and have the capacity to run out emptiness, but he continues – “I heard words/ and words full// of holes/ aching.” The repetition of “words” in such a short poem emphasizes that the words are plentiful, but rather than filling the emptiness they are full themselves – of holes. The concept of being “full of holes aching” is beautiful but sad. These words, these things that “say everything,” are still so painfully lacking. They are the best we have, but they ache with the void that they are unable to bridge. The poem concludes with Creeley’s assertion that “speech is a mouth,” reminding us again that words are reduced to their vocal capacity.

Of these three writers, there are three distinct views expressed regarding the ability of words to capture emotion. Marica Bodrozic seems undeterred, Altieri frustrated, Creeley saddened – I wonder where in this debate our previously studied poets fall? Where do we?

Galax Quartet Concert Thoughts

Our opportunity last Saturday to hear the performance of the Galax Quartet was, in my opinion, fascinating. My first reaction to the entire event was simply that there was so much more to be taken from the poem Journeys (by Gary Snyder) and indeed likely from the vast majority of poetry that I read than I had gotten myself. It was interesting to note how different the composer’s interpretation of the poem was from mine in several places – for example, the section about being the “LOWLANDS” was far more menacing, particularly with elements like the cackling laughter and the red lights during the auditorium performance. Elements like the melody that appears first in the section about wildflowers and following the river into the mountains gave the poem an aching beauty that I hadn’t expected but that was surprisingly fitting. In both the elements that challenged my reading of the poem and the ones that echoed it, it is apparent that the poem yields more meaning each time it is examined and that there is not a single “correct” version.

I think much of the beauty of experiencing a poem through music is that there is a whole other dimension to the words. The artists have tools available to do wonderful things like the ending of the piece, in which there is an echo, over which words are spoken, and then still lingering are the last strains of instrumental music. The layered and gently fading effect of the ending, so that everything is intertwined and nothing is abrupt, is not possible quite to that extent with only ink on paper. There is a sense of catharsis to listen to the music and to be lost in the words with their sound, to give in to the experience far more than is usually possible reading a poem on one’s own. Finally, I think one of the simplest and yet most effective tools of putting a poem to music is space – space between words, between lines, between thoughts; a suspension of activity that allows reflection and exploration of meaning. This performance of Journeys certainly enhanced my understanding of the poem and I would gladly “experience” more poems like this!

O’Hara’s The Day Lady Died – To whom does the poem belong?

During our class discussion of Frank O’Hara’s poem The Day Lady Died, we considered the function of his constant references to exact details and times. He uses time constantly in the poem, beginning with 12:20 in the opening line, expanding to the day (Friday), in the second line putting the day in context of the year (three days after Bastille day), in the third putting the year in context (1959), and in the fourth and fifth back to 4:19 and 7:15. This motion of time seals the moment in his own personal memory, making it impossible for the reader to enter the poem as the subject. The details included throughout the poem continue to make the scene undeniably personal. O’Hara takes his reader along his daily path on the road and into stores to take care of his daily chores, and his commentary like “for once in her life” regarding the bank teller and the confident sense with which he refers to products as specific brand names create a clear sense that this is a frequent routine of his. It is clear that while O’Hara wants to connect with his reader, he does so by making the poem able to transcend its physical setting and connect on an emotional level only. We are not invited to take part in this memory that has occurred and passed, and indeed it seems as though even O’Hara himself can only view the poem as a memory and not as an experience.

The conclusion of the poem with “and everyone and I stopped breathing,” which we discussed in class to be a reflection of the death of Lady (Billie Holiday) herself, can also be read to suggest a death or sealing of the moment in O’Hara’s own past. The last scene, as he reflects on a performance he attended of Lady’s, ends ambiguously as we are not sure who exactly has stopped breathing (“everyone” or O’Hara?) nor are we sure when this is occurring (either in the Five Spot or when O’Hara discovers that Lady has died). Regardless, the idea that someone has stopped breathing, and the fact that there is nothing following this statement, invokes the feeling that the moment itself is dead and cannot be relived even through the poem. It it as though the poem has been clipped short, suspended and detached. If we read the poem aloud this last line is difficult because it does not resolve or even end in punctuation, and the abrupt break with no logical exit seems to forcefully shake off the reader who attempts to insert him or herself into O’Hara’s memory.

In O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” he explains that he views poetry as a means to connect people as a telephone call would. This poem does accomplish this task – while the details given make the poem inaccessible as an experience for the reader, they also invite us to observe his experience closely through the lens of O’Hara’s memory. We are given many context clues to situate ourselves in time and space, and the description is such that we can visualize O’Hara himself wandering along the morning road. However, we are also clearly informed in the Manifesto of O’Hara’s regard for his audience. He explains his view of the necessity of “let[ting] all the different bodies fall where they may” in regards to the critical reception of his work. The use of the word “bodies” indicates that O’Hara fully expects a certain number of “casualties” of literary criticism, but his nonchalant decision to “let them fall” demonstrates an apparent lack of concern with their words. O’Hara’s poems are between himself and his reader, but there is a very peculiar sense that in the event that the reader does not wish to be the person on the other end of the metaphorical phone line, O’Hara is not affected. In effect, the phone call is always extended, but either party reserves the right to “hang up.”

So – to whom does the poem belong, both in this instance and in the art itself? Should the writer be invited to observe the author’s experience and connect with him, as O’Hara suggests, or does the poem leave the possession of the author once it is released to become an experience itself for the reader, as Ashbery (among others) believed? O’Hara seems to draw a fine line between wanting an intimate connection with each reader and yet only allowing them to approach the poem from an outsider’s observation – is he justified or selfish?