DANCING WITH THE STARS: Percy Shelley spins Joan Houlihan. Judge Helen Vendler slips, but does she fall?

For Scarriet’s many  friends from the U.K. and Down-under,  Dancing with the Stars is a popular American TV show in which a dancing star partners with a celebrity who cannot dance, and the couples compete in front of judges.

HERE WE GO!

Valentine Chocs..Shelley Closeup

..Joan Houlihan …………..and …………….Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ready?

Dancers, take your places.

Both poems we are looking at by Houlihan and Shelley are songs.

In Shelley’s poem, the music supplies helpful adornment, pleasing the investigator of Shelley’s idea– as the music harmonizes with Shelley’s idea.

The purpose of poetic speech is NOT to make language “opaque,” or to make the reader aware of language’s “materiality,” or to “problematize language” by making it less “transparent.”   These are the words of Helen Vendler, who sought to agree with Charles Bernstein as she expressed this opinion at the October 1984 Alabama Poetry Conference, hosted by Hank Lazer.

Vendler’s analogy fails.

Language is NOT glass; transparency is the character of glass, and coloring it alters mood as well as vision, until too much darkening ends the function of the glass as glass.

Language, let us repeat, is NOT transparent like glass; even the simplest language is NOT simple, and Bernstein with his Cambridge Analytic philosophy background would be the first to understand this.  Language is NOT transparent; it is made transparent through the poet’s harmonizing skill.  Seeking opacity, as Vendler recommends to the poet, burdens the muse unnecessarily.

Rhyme, meter, metaphor, and assonance are not strategies in the direction of opacity, but are harmonizing elements in the direction of transparency.

Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame” has bewitched many an aesthete—but poetry has more to do with air and light than stone or concentrated flame.  The skill of the poet adds transparency to language, it does not take it away; “difficult,” muddy, opaque language brings out materiality in a way that might please a Valery, but thickness of tongue and poor handling of theme inevitably create an opacity that finally hinders poetry’s higher design.

As we compare the Houlihan and Shelley, note how Shelley’s theme is  transparent and rich with harmonic accompaniment.

Compare this to Houlihan’s poem: her theme lacks transparency; Houlihan’s theme is obscure, it lacks focus; thus her song-like attempts at opacity lack harmony.

As we see in the Shelley, harmony should be the end of language’s materiality, the materiality should never be an end in itself–unless we are writing pure nonsense poetry.

We can see in Houlihan’s poem the less than happy result of reaching after materiality or opacity as a capricious end in itself.

In her poem, “I Sing To You, Offering Human Sound,” words like “here,” “finger,” “hair,” and “weather” do present the reader with a powerful potential for harmony; the mere resemblance does please to a certain  degree, but the poem’s theme, as rich and mysterious and heart-felt as it is, is neither robustly presented, nor clear; it wanders too much, and thus the opacity is finally wasted, for the web of  the poem’s language is unable to contribute to the harmony of the poem as a whole.

Shelley’s “An Exhortation” is problematic, as well, and feels like a ‘throw-away’ by a young poet in some respects, but Shelley’s genius for harmony and transparency shines upon the reader in no small degree, despite his theme’s highly metaphoric and fanciful nature.

An Exhortation
…………………..by Percy Shelley

Chameleons feed on light and air:
Poets’ food is love and fame:
If in this wide world of care
Poets could but find the same
With as little toil as they,
Would they ever change their hue
As the light chameleons do,
Suiting it to every ray
Twenty times a day?

Poets are on this cold earth,
As chameleons might be,
Hidden from their early birth
In a cave beneath the sea;
Where light is, chameleons change:
Where love is not, poets do:
Fame is love disguised: if few
Find either, never think it strange
That poets range.

Yet dare not stain with wealth or power
A poet’s free and heavenly mind:
If bright chameleons should devour
Any food but beams and wind,
They would grow as earthly soon
As their brother lizards are.
Children of a sunnier star,
Spirits from beyond the moon,
O, refuse the boon!

~

I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound
…………………………..by Joan Houlihan

Come here. Let me finger your hair.
I like the way you imitate weather:
a white breath here and there
the rush and sting of pinkened air
a coven of crows talking briefly of home
and then the pelted tree.
By these shall I know ye,
bless yer little round mug.

Oh, my semi-precious, so much slow time
so much crawling and browsing
so much fascination with harmful insects
and corrosive sublimate.
As if you have as many eyes
as many eyes as the common fly,
and every one stuck open wide
to the wonderful, wonderful world.

So, I get up at 4 am, finally, to put on some tea—
a soothing explanation for steam.
Children grow into themselves, then away.
We musn’t worry when they’re gone—
or worse, not-quite-gone-yet.
The roots of things connect
where we can’t see.

When I was born, Mother began counting
to herself. Something in the middle
must have gone missing.
Fortunately, I have all my faculties.
In fact, I still remember to turn
every small thing until it gleams:
like your favorite airplane pin

there, riding on its own cotton wad.
Now come here so I can see
through your eyes to the sky within.
You are my only animal—
my animal of air.

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 22, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Open Letter to Poets (including to myself),

    A poet friend has been pressing me to say something about what I think one can do to raise a poem upward a notch — because even if our work is really good, everything we write could still be just that tiny little trifle even better, making it great instead of good, or even very.

    For example, no way are any of those poems that Stephen Burt heavy breathes over in his “New Thing” article ever going to get up off the floor. They’re very good floor poems, if that’s what you want, but they have no legs what’s more wings to surprise you, and because of that simple little lack they’ll never change anybody’s life, for sure.

    If you think that’s important.

    It’s about a step one has never taken before, it seems to me, about stopping when we really want to go on, or going on when we’re sure we’re done. It’s about that little flick or turn or twist that makes something ordinary suddenly become irresistably beautiful, makes something that might otherwise make us cry visit us with overwheming joy.

    A pushing on — a refusing to say this is good enough — that this is a good poem so this is done.

    With that approach we only get at most good poems, not great ones. And a poem that could be great and isn’t is just a poem that’s not quite finished — and I really do believe that this applies to almost every poem ever written that’s still not great!

    Great teachers do that with their students all the time, whether dancers or pianists, glass-blowers or singers, even when their students are already way, way ahead of their mentors.

    That’s genius — great teachers can release it but unless they’re great artists too, which is very rare, will never actually do it themselves. (That’s often precisely why they’re teachers, especially the best of them!)

    In my view, Seamus Heaney is a great poet. Read him to see the perfection of knowing exactly how a word or line should go on, bend, bow, buckle, or stop.

    Perverse, shameless tinkering and then perhaps full forward in reverse, I think that’s maybe what it takes.

    (Does Shelley do that in his poem, or Joan Houlihan in hers?)

    Christopher

  2. thomasbrady said,

    October 24, 2009 at 2:54 am

    Seamus Heaney is a brilliant writer, but he’ll spoil his poems with over-use of metaphor.

    Take Heaney’s first well-known poem, when Heaney compares his pen to a
    “gun,” (because the pen is “snug like a gun” in his hand) and then, to a “spade” (’cause his father was a digger, but Seamus the son, is a poet, you see…). Talk about killing an idea with a crude comparison! Remember the old pejorative term: Mixed metaphor? “A Candle in the Wind” has one…’never knowing who to cling to, when the rains set in.’ A candle does not cling to something, or someone, to escape the dampness of rain. A writing instrument digging the soil? The act of writing as labor, the digging of moss as labor…OK. But the physical act of writing and the physical act of digging has been established by the poet in the poem with the pen ‘snug as a gun’ in the poet’s hand. Do you know the old saying expressed in cowboy ballads, ‘they’ll rob you with a fountain pen?’ That metaphor works, but imagine if the man about to rob you with a fountain pen is described as having the pen gripped in his hand like a gun? This would ruin the metaphor by literalizing it. He ‘robs’ you by making you sign on the dotted line. The comparison between gun and pen works because you don’t literally see them as the same–but with Heaney’s metaphor, you are forced to see the pen literally as a spade, because of the way he describes it. A pen can rob you, but a pen can’t dig–not as Heaney describes it.

    ‘I’ll dig with it’ is how Heaney’s poem ends, and this implies ‘digging’ into the ‘act’ of writing, but physical digging and physical writing are actions which are rather at odds with each other. The overreaching idea of writing/digging as ‘labor’ jars with its elements–the metaphor is forced, because the writer is ‘digging’ into the paper and thus marring it and tearing it to pieces–but this isn’t what Heaney intends–and the ‘gun’ comparison doesn’t help here at all–so this is why I think the metaphor fails: it’s FORCED, and thus, the poem fails–yet this may be Heaney’s most anthologized piece. The superiority of writing to mere digging is never quite grappled with. In order to do this, we need to see what the ancestors think of Heaney’s writing–we only get HIM flattering THEIR skill at digging. There’s no conflict. There’s no nuance. We don’t get beyond: My fathers dug, and I admire them for doing so, but I’m going to write. The writer is proud at the end of the poem: “I’ll dig with it.” But why? The poem feels like a Wordsworth poem–there’s a one-way preachiness, but no real human interaction. We see the father’s ‘rump’ but we don’t hear him speak; we don’t meet him. We just have the proud son saying, “I’ll dig with MY PEN.” The poet finally comes across as a bit of a self-obsessed bore: quick to flatter, quick to indulge (if a bit clumsily) a metaphor, but lacking in truth, somehow.

    Heaney certainly writes good poetry, but there isn’t one real ‘winner’ among the individual poems.

    Perhaps Heaney can dance with Wordsworth. Shall we make this the next contest?

    Digging

    Between my finger and my thumb
    The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

    Under my window a clean rasping sound
    When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
    My father, digging. I look down

    Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
    Bends low, comes up twenty years away
    Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
    Where he was digging.

    The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
    Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
    He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
    To scatter new potatoes that we picked
    Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

    By God, the old man could handle a spade,
    Just like his old man.

    My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
    Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
    Once I carried him milk in a bottle
    Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
    To drink it, then fell to right away
    Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
    Over his shoulder, digging down and down
    For the good turf. Digging.

    The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
    Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
    Through living roots awaken in my head.
    But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

    Between my finger and my thumb
    The squat pen rests.
    I’ll dig with it.

  3. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 24, 2009 at 4:06 am

    I don’t altogether agree with you in this assessment, Tom, but what you’re doing is most certainly what I’d call responsible criticism. And why? Because it’s so engaged in the dynamics of the poem itself you can almost smell the words and feel the breath of the poet on your neck.

    Such a critic almost becomes the poet’s doppel ganger, an image I just used in another comment on the ‘Poet Preposterous, GBF’ thread where I took a well-wrought poem, embraced it closely, and rewrote it in my own image — not because the poem was unsatisfactory but because it took me in that direction. The poem itself engaged me and we both went there together.

    And what that can do, the critic getting right in there as you do too, Tom, is bring the reader right in there too — and possibly the poet too, if he or she is still alive and/or cares to listen. What you do when you show the fallibility of Heaney’s pen metaphor in “Digging,” for example, and very persuasively, too, is help the reader to see better in the deepest sense of the word — and in the case of a great poem, some of it’s greatest effects are often right on the edge, like most of John Donne’s best ones, or a modern metaphysical like Jean Valentine’s. Being willing to walk the fine line between appreciation and scepticism all the time in criticism is to engage any poem on a more equal, more free and voluntary basis, eye to eye, so to speak — alive and well and very, very complicated.

    The critic who works out of an agenda, who grazes poems like a cow who’s only tolerated for the milk and the manure, or an economist who gets all the praise when the stock market goes up, has no real interest in poems as more than grass or numbers. The object is the livelihood of all the poets, teachers, editors and publishers with their ‘special interests,’ and poems are worn like blazers or baseball caps. What they say is I BELONG.

    Christopher

  4. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 24, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound
    …………………………..by Joan Houlihan

    Come here. Let me finger your hair.
    I like the way you imitate weather:
    a white breath here and there
    the rush and sting of pinkened air
    a coven of crows talking briefly of home
    and then the pelted tree.
    By these shall I know ye,
    bless yer little round mug.

    Oh, my semi-precious, so much slow time
    so much crawling and browsing
    so much fascination with harmful insects
    and corrosive sublimate.
    As if you have as many eyes
    as many eyes as the common fly,
    and every one stuck open wide
    to the wonderful, wonderful world.

    So, I get up at 4 am, finally, to put on some tea—
    a soothing explanation for steam.
    Children grow into themselves, then away.
    We musn’t worry when they’re gone—
    or worse, not-quite-gone-yet.
    The roots of things connect
    where we can’t see.

    When I was born, Mother began counting
    to herself. Something in the middle
    must have gone missing.
    Fortunately, I have all my faculties.
    In fact, I still remember to turn
    every small thing until it gleams:
    like your favorite airplane pin

    there, riding on its own cotton wad.
    Now come here so I can see
    through your eyes to the sky within.
    You are my only animal—
    my animal of air.

    Joan Houlihan’s poem, “I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound,” has a wonderful title, and the reader is not disappointed in the first two lines, which are generous too. The diction is slightly archaic, which helps to establish that timeless lyrical quality that familiar songs have, ones that do not have to be stalked or deftly caught in nets, or limed like birds, but inhabit of their own free will our gardens and live to serve and please us. Man’s best friend, we say about our beloved dogs, and the ones that are most adapted to survival are the ones that are steadiest and sappiest, like our memories of the best days of our lives, picnics, first snow falls, Christmases, memorial services for those we will never forget, like the impossible deaths of our mothers.

    “Come here. Let me finger your hair,” the poem begins, and we know precisely where we are — a lovely rhythm like a dog siddling up beside us at our desks while we’re writing such rich words as “here” and “hair,” and our creative “fingers” tangling in the steady “weather” of our best friend’s fur– we say “imitate” because we know it’s not really like that at all, and we’re here at our desks inside imagining outside, unimaginable weather that matters. That’s a good place to be — that’s how poems we both love to read and write begin. “By these shall I know ye” — the things we take for granted like breath and weather.

    So why all the confusions in between? Is this natural, to be so difficult, or is this what we’ve come to expect a poem to do, just to bemuse us and make us think not understanding makes us deeper? Is this because we’ve lost the capacity to trust? Is it because we don’t think anything that’s easy is good enough, or anything that makes sense is complex or profound enough to be worth the trouble and the training poets assume such a ‘difficult’ art is about? Do we have to mix it all up to be a poet, turning the kaleidescope of our syntax so that although we no longer have understanding at least we have a heap of broken images? Do we have to wrestle with the image as if it were the intolerable angel of death, when real life’s such an agonizingly beautiful preparation for death already?

    You tell me what’s going on with this dog that imitates the weather, or is that when Helen Vendler’s advice to make it dense takes over or, as in Tom’s summary of her BAMA talk:

    to make language “opaque“…

    to make the reader aware of language’s “materiality“…

    to “problematize language” by making it “less transparent.

    And why would you want to do that, and then pretend everything’s o.k. in a line like “bless yer little round mug,” as if you were at home in the kitchen and not way up in your own obscure, onanistic, sealed in the forehead confession or Brahmanical ivory tower?

    This poem of Joan Houlihan’s is a masterful poem, a poem that knows its literary history and all the tropes, and that in another age could have been a poem that people would have celebrated and sung with such pleasure, and burnt its author on a pyre on a Lygurian beach amidst the weeping and gnashing of teeth — worth risking a burnt hand to pluck the heart that beats the simplest truth and the certainty from the midst of the fire? So why all the goobledygook, why all the deliberate opacity and obfuscations, why the false trails and counterfeit inversions, the smoking of the lens, the perversions and twists that make it, quite frankly, impossible to read? Why does it have to be so difficult when life is diificult enough already, and deep, without any irritable scrambling of the message. What is this about, if nobody can read it?

    I annoy the hell out of our resident poet, Gary B. Fitzgerald, by rewriting the last word of all his poems (pacé, Gary, I love them!). I’ll do that with Joan Houlihan’s too, and of course you know what I’d go for.

    Just “hair.”

    (“How’s that!” as they say in cricket, or “Am I right or am I right?” on the Lower East Side!)

    Christopher

  5. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 25, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Some specific questions about “I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound” which a reader simply shouldn’t have to ask:

    1.) Why is the breath of the dog “white,” and why is its weather “here and there?”

    2.) Why is the air “pinkened” when the dog’s weather/breath is “white,” and why does the dog the poet says she “like[s]” “imitate” weather that “sting[s]?”

    3.) Why are the “crows” in the dog’s fur, and even if it’s a very black dog we know the poet still likes to finger its hair, so why are we suddenly expected to believe the birds of the dog’s fur’s weather in a “coven?”

    4.) Why are the crows talking only “briefly,” and what does “home” have to do with anything that has come before or will come on to follow? Or are dogs always, like weather, located essentially in the home, like “yer little round mug?” Well, if that’s so, how did we ever get back there, of all places, and why are we going where we’re going next?

    5.) Why is the best image in this poem that “sing[s]” an offering of “human sound” so dislocated? “The pelted tree,” wonderful, lies there unused, undeveloped at the end of a whole lot of “weather” images. Is this one of the “human sounds” that we’re being offered? Is this the weather of the dog? Because, quite frankly, it’s a terrible waste, such a good image just thrown away like that and left hanging there to gather dust.

    But maybe that’s the point, the poem isn’t just for fun or what it means. Maybe it’s written to express the “materiality” of words, slow, dense and unredeemable, or to show us how “opaque” they can be, how they can hang over the poem like heavy curtains, to “problematize language,” in Helen Vendler’s actual phrase, and make it, shudder, not “wonderful” at all, but fogged, clogged — “less transparent?”

    Do we like this?

    It’s such a beautiful poem gone so badly wrong, Joan Houlihan. Indeed, you must have worked so hard to force it into such uncomfortable positions, making sure that all its grace got dumped on, and all its health distorted.

    And you seem to get real pleasure out of undermining your best work, because the next stanza starts so well too;

    Oh, my semi-precious, so much slow time
    so much crawling and browsing
    so much fascination with harmful insects…

    Yes, I do have some problems with “crawling and browsing,” but compared to the distortions we’ve just passed through these are quite beautiful, combining as they do the movement of the loving dog around the poet with his or her own creative circlings round and round the subject/mat before lying down at last in peace. But I can’t get (or forgive) that “corrosive sublimate,” unless it’s where you have to go once you’ve let the insects be “harmful.” Because “corrosive sublimate” is so obviously designed just to shock, and otherwise has nothing whatever to do with poet or dog or weather, poem or reader — that’s “seeking opacity,” I guess, as Helen Vendler recommended, but which Thomas Brady very rightly says, simply “burdens the muse unnecessarily.”

    And I don’t even want to think about those “eyes” that are just about to follow, because looking on to a “wonderful, wonderful world,” however much you will it, Joan Houlihan, doesn’t give you the excuse to say just anything you want about the eyes that see it, however important you think it is for a poet to be clever and surprising. Sounds to me like you just ran out of steam and hoped the bizarreness of the image would make it fly (good word in the context!), or be picked up by Stephen Burt to illustrate some even newer thing. Well, whatever you call it, it simply doesn’t work because, as my acting teacher always used to say to me (and he was right, which is why I know it and can say it too!), “I don’t believe it.”

    Christopher

  6. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 25, 2009 at 10:32 am

    If you’ve followed me carefully you will see I’ve contradicted myself. Right at the end of my first comment on this thread I wrote about what it takes to lift a poem which is already good to be even better. “Perverse, shameless tinkering,” I wrote, “and then perhaps full forward in reverse, I think that’s maybe what it takes.”

    So why isn’t this what Joan Houlihan is doing in “I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound?” Well it is, precisely, but there’s something missing, and that’s just what I said at the end of my last comment, believing it!

    Joan Houlihan is a truly gifted poet and critic, but she allows herself to say things that she knows very well aren’t true, like in the letter she published in Poets & Writers Magazine in Nov 2006 in which she asserted that I, among others, was a “loser” who demonstrated a “willful misunderstanding of the whole process of editing and publishing poetry in America” — I hope you all know what I’m referring to by now. And she knew very well I wasn’t a loser, and also that I didn’t misunderstand at all what had happened to me. But she said it anyway, indeed as if she actually believed it. And, of course, she said what she did for ‘other purposes,’ ones which she allowed to cloud her better judgement — like protecting her own reputation and that of a close business associate who was also her publisher.

    And in art, even more than in business, I think, that’s fatal.

    Because, of course, the same challenges do arise for artists, and particularly for those artists who are working on the edge. We simply have to have judgement, and above all we have to judgement with regard to our motives in creating anything at all, but in particular, I’d say, in writing words of influence and power. And poems very much fit into this category. The “better” a poem gets, the more “powerful” it becomes — which means we have to examine our motives even more closely and guard ourselves even more rigorously against inflation, deliberate obfuscation, and ‘telling lies.’ Lesser poets often fall down here, particularly in our times when there’s always that temptation to “make it new!” Greater poets almost by definition speak with integrity, because they never need to sound better than they are — which is why we trust and love them.

    “I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound” is a good poem, and Joan Houlihan deserves her reputation. It’s just a shame both her critical philosophy and her personal needs seem to lead her into falsifying what would otherwise be highly commendable and trustworthy offerings.

    I’ve been trying to say this for some time, and I’ve put quite a lot of effort into trying to substantiate it here in detail. I thank you for listening.

    Christopher