Friday, June 04, 2010

Of Mere Being

I am not a great reader of poetry, and really not a reader at all, but I've begun to find poets and poems that I can read, by which I mean I find nourishment, if not articulated understanding.

I can't tell whether it is just an effect of having read so much of Harold Bloom, but I find that my tastes are identical to his. At least, the early Bloom. I haven't found my way in Shakespeare or Homer yet, but the early Bloom was preoccupied with Romanticism and its offspring, and I hazard that the three poets who loomed largest were Blake, Emerson, and Wallace Stevens. And those are the three who've found me most. As Bloom aged, and he endeavored to take more and more history in his grasp, the only one of the three to continue on at the forefront of his writing was Emerson (probably an effect of wanting to become an American Sage) and in contrast to the others' fall was the J-writer, Homer, Milton and Shakespeare's rise. But that's merely an effect of perspective: if you asked him even now who he loves most, rather than who was most powerful over a 3,000 year span, I think he would say Stevens and Hart Crane.

I took a "Close Reading" seminar a little time ago, and after taking a class on English Romanticism, I'm finding the little readings I wrote for those classes beginning to make a useful collage. The pattern was, no doubt, predetermined by my preoccupations, which are in some ways taken from my heroes, like Rorty and Bloom, but their preoccupations come from the source material I now look at, so it isn't surprising I see and write about their themes in relation to it. And perhaps these might find useful exposition under my jagged saw, if only to send one to the nearest surgeon's knife.

Of Mere Being can be found here (corrected copy with "decor" and not "distance").


A lone palm frond rises up before us and it is difficult to tell where it came from. Such is the effect of the Godlike, yet human, stance taken in the poem—there’s hardly a “tone,” if tone be something emotional, at all. This dry, surveying of an interior space, of course, is the proper affect of an explorer, reporting to his fellows his discoveries. The Explorer stands inside of us, our minds, and is telling Us his findings—what makes us happy or unhappy. But since the Explorer is also us, there is a certain self-addressed quality—the introspective sojourner, telling us and himself about what he found inside of himself, which is also inside of us.

The figure repeated by this Cartesian Explorer, which seems to undergird his very existence as an Explorer, is the spatial metaphor for the mind—if the mind weren’t a space, it would be difficult to presume that we need an Explorer, “out” “un-covering” facts about the way things “are” (before they were covered). The tropes of factual existence and space are so tightly bound together, it is difficult to tell which one came first, or how to unbind them. The affect of a tonal blandness, what we call “matter-of-fact,” is a further trope difficult to untangle—even knowing they are all tropes, and so created, we can’t seem to get away from the “fact” that when you want to “emote” the way things “are,” you do it “matter-of-factly,” as if the way things are had a special sound or tone. And then, of course, you huddle your difficulties together in scare quotes to pretend like you don’t really mean those words, without realizing that “really meaning” anything would seem to itself imply the thing you’re scared of.

Our Explorer, however, is unafraid, and calmly pushes, like furniture out of the way, “Beyond the last thought” (2) to “The palm at the end of the mind,” (1) which “rises/in the bronze decor” (2-3). Such a silly image, our mind as a bronzed room in which the Explorer has discovered a palm frond rising out of at its edge—near the window, perhaps, just past the chaise-thought—is the oddity we began with: how matter-of-factly presented! Yet on we go, to find “A gold-feathered bird” (4) presented to us, which “Sings in the palm” (5). At this point, the Explorer begins withholding from us: the song is “without human meaning,/Without human feeling, a foreign song.” The sense of “without” as being a “withheld” is given by the sense in which the Explorer, having discovered this bird that sings, is telling us that its song is without meaning or feeling. And yet, the bird is within all of us, so the description is an assertion about the song's unavailability, despite what we may think should we care to explore the bronze room ourselves. And further, that the song is “foreign,” and not unintelligible though pretty noise, suggests that our Explorer, or someone, can understand the song—its translation is being withheld from us, either willfully or do to sheer inability on our part. And given the godlike, surveying powers of the Cartesian Explorer, it is difficult not to feel a little of both.

The Explorer now mounts an argument: “You know then that it is not the reason/That makes us happy or unhappy./The bird sings. Its feathers shine” (7-9). Like a scientist building a case for his theory, “You know” stands in for “given the evidence I just gave you.” The Explorer has discovered something, and given this, we know something else. But given our tilting apprehensions at information being withheld, the argument plays a little forced. The Explorer, seeing his hand bent a little too far forward, rushes the staccato evidential claims, “The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” The Explorer emotes a little uncertainty thereby, given his own listening to the song he’s singing.

The report of the last stanza gives the feeling of ebbing away. I think this should suggest to us that the tone of matter-of-factness becomes the trope I called it earlier. The juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact tone with the silly image heightens until it shakes the Explorer’s own faith in it. There is a shift in tone between the third and fourth stanzas, from dry arguing and listing of data to increasingly lyrical and “poetic” descriptions. We first get the palm frond again, but then we get an entirely new sentence which gives us a slow breeze blowing through the verse, an environmental quality to the mind that was missing in the staid, dry tone used earlier. And while it is a “wind,” and not specifically a breeze, there is a feeling that by the last line, it would have been a “willowy wafting breeze,” as the Explorer lets loose a pure, poetic outburst, with a sudden alliterative nightmare of complications to metaphors (the gold feathers are now “fire-fangled”; what is “fire-fangled”?; they dangle down despite the wind; why dangle?). This complete about-face in tone and style, his entire rhetorical edifice, suggests that the Explorer is spiraling away from himself, giving to himself not only hints of uncertainty in the third stanza with the rushed argument, but a full crisis of being.

I do not think the last line means anything—I think it is as close to an unintelligible outburst as Yeats’ “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” The Explorer mirrors his last line—which is still yet an image within the mind, within the compass of his exploration—on the boundary, “the end,” “the edge” of intelligibility created by the bird’s own “foreign song,” in order to create the effect of our minds actually reaching that edge, which is at the same time to pull down the curtain hiding the tropeness of discovery and the mind as an interior space. The Explorer begins as an Explorer, but ends as a Poet, giving the impression that if we could just disentangle this last “foreign” phrase, “fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” we might know what the song means. But what we know, in line seven, is that “it”—the song—“is not the reason/That makes us happy or unhappy.” It’s the feathers—the poetic act of near-unintelligibility, gently nudging the edges of our mind back.



I took the easy way out with the last line. Most litcrits these days seem to be quite enamored with this uncertainty, Keats’ negative capability, with the fact that the oddity of the metaphor, the distinct unclarity of the trope, should not be something washed away, and if you did, you might be thereby effacing the trope.

Well, with the last line—knowing well in advance that everything can be made into a trope and that this wasn’t the first time (we always want to be a poem’s first time, don’t we?)—the sheer unintelligibility of “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down” became, for me, the trope. Instead of seeing the line, and going, “Damn—now what the hell does that mean!?,” I said, quite matter-of-factly, “The last line of the poem does not mean anything.”

Which of course, like the depth of surfaces, is just to say that the last line does mean something—specifically, nothing. The question of course is, “how do you know it means nothing?” And hence the several hundred words before, all about a “matter of fact” tone, held throughout the poem of “discovery” of the boundaries of meaning in the “inner space” of the mind. Once one realizes that the mind-as-a-space is a trope, that produces an “Explorer” in the first place, this allows you to “discover” that the far-reaches of the mind is the far-end of trope. The Explorer turns into a Poet at the end because he realizes that the edge of intelligibility teaches the tropeness of tone and rhetoric, and so drops the tone of the Explorer, picks up that of the Poet and lets loose with a piece of nonsense. The last line is the written version of the “foreign song” we were told doesn’t have any meaning—now we see it doesn’t have any meaning.

Which is all quite a pat argument, and somehow makes the poem less fun—except the last line, which always remains fun, for it means nothing. Until I say it specifically means nothing, thus enclosing it with a certain meaning: nothing. Then I read it again and go, “yeah, but what the hell does that mean?” And I have to remind myself, “nothing. It means nothing.” And so it ebbs away in my mind, having wrangled its meaning, the metaphor dying andthenIreaditagain “fire-fangled feathers dangle down” and go, “How could anybody attach any meaning to thatohyeah: it means nothing....But—no, nothing, right....right?yes, nothing....bu—okay: YOU HAVE TO STOP READING THE POEM.”

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