Saturday, February 21, 2015

Shakespeare, Sonnet 73: (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”), for Poetry Insight (An Introduction to Canonical British Poetry for The High School Common Core)

Since, historically, Shakespeare’s sonnet is the first poem written in English included in this common core iphone amp anthology, we will use it to discuss some of the most perennial poetic tools still used in poetry over 400 years later. The poem is a good introduction to how poetic personification and comparsion, specifically metaphor, makes poetry a different language than standard prose.

A Brief Intro to Metaphor And Simile

What is a metaphor? Why use it? A metaphor is a comparison of two things, and usually one of these things is something you can feel or touch, or see, and the other is more intangible or abstract. A basic example is “Love is a Rose.” Love isn’t like a rose; it is a rose.  A simile is like a metaphor, but adds the word “like.” “Love is like a rose” is a simile. A simile says two things are like each other: My tears are like rain, but a metaphor is stronger, and weirder: the sky is crying!

Metaphor does not just link these two terms, but creates a third one (a synthesis wider than the some of its parts). Take, for instance, the metaphor “A Marriage is a Carriage and Lust is the horse.” In this metaphor, the marriage and carriage go together. You can’t have one without the other, especially if you want love, the third term, the harmonious or equal bringing together of these terms. Metaphors need not be balanced or equal. For instance, the carriage of marriage could run over the horse of lust, or love. Or, to put it in simpler terms, to say that “love is a rose” is not to reduce love to a rose anymore than it is to widen the word “rose” to include love: A rose is love. If you let it die, you may be a hater.

In any event, metaphors are everywhere in our society, as George Lakoff has shown. We use them without thinking about them. There are fresh metaphors, and dead metaphors, and outdated metaphors that people still use anyway.  In poetry, it’s one of the main tools most of these writers use, and often they make them more complex.

Metaphor And Conceit (and their usefulness to Critical Thinking)

A metaphor can be really short: “Hate is a Thorn,” but there are extended metaphors that can take several sentences, or stanzas. Sometimes, they can be extended so long that they take up an entire poem. A Metaphor that takes up an entire poem becomes its theme, or Conceit. A Metaphoric Conceit may sound like a fancy technical term, but once you understand what it can do, or what you—as a reader or writer of poetry—can do with it, the extended conceit becomes one of the most practical skills you can learn from poetry. It’s one of the ways poetry can help you learn the art of seeing both sides of an argument, and teaches skills comparing and contrasting so useful to critical thinking and understanding, or at least being able to communicate with others who may feel or think, or at least speak, very differently than you—skills necessary to survival in this world.

The Metaphor “My Life is a Gun” may sound crazy, but in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “My Life---Had Stood—A Loaded Gun,” she makes it more convincing. It takes her an entire poem to do this, as she breathes life into the phrase of speech, fleshes it out and embodies it, so by the end you can’t even tell if it’s really Emily Dickinson speaking or a poem spoken by a gun, telling you about how it feels. Many of the poems included in this Poetry Insight common core anthology app use simple metaphors, stanza-length metaphors, and poem-length metaphoric conceits.

 Shakespeare Sonnet #73: A Brief Structural Analysis

Let’s start at the beginning with Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73. Like every “Shakespearean sonnet” (he didn’t call them that, and didn’t even entirely invent the form, which was a conventional form before he wrote them), this poem is divided up into three 4-line stanzas, and one two-line stanza, which is called an envoi.

In Sonnet #73, each 4-line stanza explores one metaphor. In the first four lines, the writer (the persona) makes two different metaphors and combines them. One is about time (in general): An Entire Human Life is a Year. Imagine if the first 12 years of your life were lived in one year. By February you would have learned to walk and talk! You would have saved your mother at least a year of having to change diapers! You’d learn how to tell time really quickly, and be in 1st Grade by half-way through June. Would that have been better?

This is a very common metaphor when people talk about life or careers (I just heard a sportscaster refer to a 35 year-old shortstop as in the “November of his career;” and there are many songs by older people with lines about “The September of my life.” We can picture Baby New Year, and Jolly Old Men in December. The human life span, the 70 or so years we’re promised if we eat our veggies, and exercise enough, and cross our fingers that nothing bad happen, is like a year (and in some countries and cultures “New Year” is celebrated closer to the first day of spring, or fall instead of the around the first day of winter).

Shakespeare takes this metaphor, and expands it.  By using the phrase “in me,” Shakespeare’s persona talks about his own life as one year. He was only in his 30s when he wrote this, but he’s writing to someone who is younger than him. He believes the person he’s writing to, the person who he cares enough about to write a sonnet to (and addresses intimately as a “thou”) may see him (“Mayst behold”) as too old! But in order to say that Shakespeare doesn’t say exactly how old he is. He uses another metaphor to explain himself: I am a tree!

He’s a tree in autumn. His leaves are doing what leaves do every year: leave—they’re leaving him. “Leaves are hair” is another metaphor, and Shakespeare was, in fact prematurely bald. His boughs shake against the cold. I picture his sturdy trunk even shaking in this cold too, but he doesn’t even talk about his legs. There’s no sweet music the wind can make through the leaves, and the birds have fled him for warmer climates. The birds and leaves are images but they could also be symbols. Of course Shakespeare isn’t saying he is a tree, in this poem; he’s just asking the person he’s writing to you if he or she thinks he’s too old.

So why doesn’t he come out and just say that? Why, because poetry does other things too. It’ not just trying to complicate a simple statement, or even simply to decorate it. It’s inviting us to identify with how a tree might feel in October (or what the poet Wallace Stevens calls “Froz-Nil-Imbo” in his poem “Metamorphosis”). This rhetorical device may be called The Pathetic Fallacy or The Objective Correlative. The Pathetic Fallacy is a term the critic John Ruskin coined in the mid 19th century to criticize poetry that sees human, emotional, characteristics in non-human objects. Not every writer, however, considers this a fallacy or falseness. How do we know that trees aren’t crying? T.S. Eliot tries to defend what Ruskin calls this fallacy by calling it an Objective Correlative. “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events." Shakespeare’s tree certainly expresses an emotion in the form of art. Even further, it shows a deep connection between what common sense language calls human vs. what it calls inhuman. This is part of what makes poetry so powerful.

Mirrored Fire

These two metaphors (“I am A Tree” and “Life is A Year”) are combined with another metaphor (which he doesn’t directly say): You Are My Mirror (there’s a beautiful simple song called “I’ll be Your Mirror,” by Lou Reed, which explores this conceit). This metaphor is the main Metaphorical Conceit of the poem, and takes the entire poem to unfold, or “unpack.”

In every stanza, Shakespeare uses the “You Are My Mirror” metaphor—but he gets rid of the tentative “mayst.” In the second stanza, “thou seest the twilight of such a day.” He changes the time metaphor from a year to a day. Midnight is January or birth (and could also be death, since the clock is a circle as the calendar is earth’s rotation around the sun). Noon is Summer, but you see me in Twilight, and it’s getting darker as he writes! What is “Death’s Second Self?” It’s not real death (nobody knows that mystery), but it’s the way we feel death in life: the darkest time of the day or night. The analogy between these two stanza-length metaphors is established in the first 8 lines, the poem’s octet. They are two ways of writing the same thing: the twilight of my life is the September of my years.

But in the third stanza, he uses a third metaphor that is not based on a unit of time like a day or a year. He uses the metaphor of a (dying) fire. Fires are mortal too. They need fuel, or they can burn themselves out. In fact, their very burning leads to their death; as a fire burns, what makes it alive is also what makes it die. A fire makes trees into ashes, but the ashes eventually can put out the fire.

In Kenneth Koch’s poem, “The Boiling Water,” he explores what it feels like to be a boiling pot of water. And in Sonnet #73, Shakespeare explores what it’s like to be a contained fire; he’s not talking about a rampant forest fire here, and there’s no mention of rain or firemen to put it out. He doesn’t need to extend the metaphor that far---but you can if you want! Maybe your teacher will give you extra-credit.

In the final two stanzas, the argument of the poem turns all of its focus to its addressee, the reader, the mirror, in the poem’s metaphoric conceit, who inspired the poem: Even if you do see me as all these all things---old and even not much longer for this earth, even if you must leave me (rather than “I must leave you”), right now you love me, despite this-- and that makes me happy! I feel loved!

To some modern readers, the last two lines seem “tacked on,” in a way that makes the poem unconvincing, but in many ways this ending changes everything in the poem, by reducing the expanded metaphorical arguments in the first 12 lines and expanding our interest in “thou.” Formally, this shows how the poem does not exist in isolation, but was written as part of a sequence, a narrative of lyric poems (if not quite as narrative as Shakespeare’s main art-form, his plays, which he was temporally unable to stage while he was writing these Sonnets during a plague that shut the theatres down). Many of the other sonnets in this sequence devote much more time to “thou” than “me.” This sonnet may whet our appetite to read them.

Yet the ending of the poem doesn’t just “click shut like a box” and resolve the mystery---the persona still doesn’t really know how strong “thy love” really is. He writes that it’s strong, because he wants “thou” to feel good for loving him, but when he adds “thou must leave ere long,” it’s not clear whether he means that he’s going to die soon, or that ‘thou’ (as a fickle youth) will tire of him. There’s still doubt—and maybe even a note of self-pity in the last line, but there does seem to be a burning hope for a response, for “thou” to write him back, or tell him “No, I won’t leave. And yes I do see you as all those things, but that’s what I love about you. I love older men, and I love you!

There reading only scratches the surface. Indeed, Sonnet #73 has been interpreted as many ways as there are readers, maybe even more! And that’s part of its point, not to be pinned down by a single meaning as everyday language puts it---to get us to think about the mystery of aging and time as much more complex than the linear calendar would put it. Every distinction the poem makes between self and other, real and imaginary, present and past, can be seen from at least two perspective. Thus, even a mournful sounding poem can stir wonder and allow us to think of the warmth spun by the word; and around its center, the dream called ourselves (as Tristan Tzara put it in Approximate Man).

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Beyond Against Lineage: Notes to an MFA In Non-Poetry

 When I finished my doctoral dissertation in 1998, I felt an acute need to detox from the over-sophistication of academic discourse that had come to have a little more of a hold on me than I wished it had. Of course, I still hoped to use this degree to land a full-time tenure track academic gig, and wasn’t going to renounce the Ph.D. or anything. But I felt a burning need to return to what I had lost after plunging into a Ph.D. program after my mother’s death in 1992—hopefully with the added hindsight of time.

So, aside from Laura (Riding) Jackson whose writing I read obsessively, I found myself turning back to an intense self-directed study of two living writers whose work had been central inspirations for me: Leonard Cohen and Amiri Baraka, two Libras born in 1934, whose work were in various ways marginalized by academia (although they were both more popular than those more sanctioned in academia). These two male (and obviously male) writers had much of the intelligence that I admired in (Riding) Jackson, but they also had many obvious differences…and they were still very active into their 70s.

These three writers were important to me, in part because they had all begun their public(ation) journey with fine examples of gem-like lyric poetry, but soon broadened the range and scope of their work in defiance of the narrowness of genre conventions. In poetry, they went beyond the “Perloff-Vendler” continuum, in whose parameters I safely operated in my 1996 “Against Lineage” essay, and even the “Raw Vs. The Cooked” debates of 1960 if updated and applied to the contemporary literary landscape at the turn of the 21st century.  These writers even went beyond the wider narrowness of “literature itself”--most markedly in the case of Riding and Baraka (by comparison with these two, Cohen operated in a less inclusive Tower of Art).

The three formed a triangle; if these three proper names can be reduced to points in a constellation (the stars that are really burning suns far more vast than may seem when you view them in Orion’s belt), I found in this imagined triangle more than enough space for every literary possibility I cared about. If I were stuck on a desert island, and could bring only three (3) writers—poets—with me I’d choose these three—over, say, Ashbery, Shakespeare, Creeley and Dickinson--etc.


As I thought of what it was that drew me especially to these writers (who are not usually spoken in connection with each other), on one level I was still thinking academically (I was, after all, still teaching): thinking that my next book of critical prose—after my Shakespeare book—should focus on a comparison and contrast of Laura (Riding) Jackson and Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka—emphasizing some little noted or commented on similarities. For instance, both these writers became known as “controversial” and even difficult (as in difficult to work with) when they went through profound transformations of writing style—which they announced publically and dramatically with a name change—as Laura Riding became (Riding) Jackson circa 1940, and Le Roi Jones became Amiri Baraka after Malcolm X’s death.

Perverse as this may seem, I felt that they changed their names for many of the same reasons—in service of the mode of “truth” that poetry often ghettoizes, a freedom not permitted by "free verse,"in standing against the “show, don’t tell” mode that came to dominate the ostensibly wide range of contemporary American poetry sanctioned until today. In order to break from such confines, both knew they had to change their names. Both clearly struggled against white patriarchal culture, and--—with mordant brilliance and a love that becomes words—provided alternatives to it. Both were theatrical (even in Riding’s alleged disavowal of theatre—which is more complicated than her ‘purist’ fans—as well as her detractors--or those who will offer her conditional love for her poetry of the 20s and 30s--will admit). Both used as many rhetorical tools as they could get their pens on against the master’s house while working to reconstruct a new master-less one that would be better than a new movie).

Both Riding and Baraka were deep thinkers, and obsessive writers who used the “normative discourse” that male Euro-American culture calls Philosophy (and more recently Theory) against itself and its institutional setting. They cast a wider, yet more existentially more rooted, net. Philosophers become characters in their work, like they did in Shakespeare’s plays. A (Riding) Jacksonian or Barakian reading of, say, Derrida or Ezra Pound could yield more ethical fruits and truths than a Derridean reading of Baraka or Riding, but this maneuver is more than the standard academic division of labor between primary and secondary texts could handle.

This may partially explain why both writers were so baffling and/or threatening to the literary/critical establishment, then and now (Experts Are Puzzled) and why, in that world, both are placed in the outskirts of the so-called “canon.”

Yet, my interest in Baraka differed from my interest in Riding in at least one very profound immediate way: Baraka’s love of music (or one could even say music of love) was and is so central to his oeuvre that his work has been closer to my heart. In this, for me, Baraka went deeper, and was more revolutionary, than Riding—especially because he was still alive and working as a populist, as a public intellectual—or what could be termed “griot” for the mass culture era (Baraka didn’t need to renounce electricity, though much of the jazz he loves is acoustic). The music and the movement were one.

This spirit in the non-verbal aspects of art, the complex symbiotic relationship between page and stage, always spoke to me, and I think our times (our post-song lyrics-as-poetry times)—even had his content not been as blatantly revolutionary as it was, this in itself was a political act that I felt was necessary if poetry and literature was to ever do anything in the burning house of contemporary reality even if Baraka had to fan, rather than douse, the flames (though with much more prophetic foresight than burning his own neighborhood after the death of MLK).

Baraka’s work, even in its most Marxist manifestations, cannot be understood except in service of this (black) music which must live beyond the (white) page. And, academically speaking, I could see this project, as a return to the primordial unity of word and sound that the academics saw most acutely in Ancient Greece (as, say, Trimpi’s study of the pre-socratics like Hesiod—The Muses Of One Mind).

But even that Greek “starting place,” I soon discovered (with Baraka’s help, once freed from the shackles of a Ph.D. in English) was a watered down borrowing of an African sense of art and culture. And in America, as Baraka taught, the African-American tradition has been a vital parallel tradition to the Euro-American one, a tradition that existed somewhat underground—or unacknowledged, unlegitimized by white folks (like drums being taken away by slave masters on Congo Square, for instance).  Sometimes it was even unacknowledged by black folks: “Oh, we don’t really have a literary culture like the white man does.”

Some called bullshit on this before Baraka, but he went much further in theorizing and enacting it than any before him. As William J. Harris argues, the fact of Amiri Baraka did, and does, change American literature. Some know it…some don’t, or fear to admit it to themselves. And this is part of why the fight (of love, of music) must and does continue after his death. His legacy can be seen in his biological offspring---his artist daughter he had with Hettie, or his mayor son with Amina, as well as his daughter who was brutally murdered by a homophobe who taught him to understand more intimately the struggles of the LGBT community. But Baraka has a larger family….


I must stop myself at this juncture to revisit my love-hate relationship with Leonard Cohen. Cohen, by most measures, is not nearly as radical or revolutionary as either Laura (Riding) Jackson or Amiri Baraka. But an interesting essay or book could be written, and an interesting course could be proposed, to show how Cohen and Riding (both Jews) challenge the gendered aspects of Western Religion and metaphysics since the erasure of Lilith from the Bible. Furthermore, like Baraka, Cohen embraced music (they both released their first album in 1967, after their publications of poetry and narrative prose).

To be sure, it is a very different kind of music than Baraka’s, a much more Euro-American (or Euro-Canadian-American) music that emphasizes the popular song, the formal rhyme schemes of ballad, and the near rhythmless “singer/songwriter” craftsman—but, still, a music with words, or words not confined to the “unheard sounds” so beloved by those who crave and promulgate the well-wrought urn of gem-like lyrics, or even the hybrid texts of the Vendler/Perloff continuum. And this becomes radical, or challenging, in the context of contemporary American “Poetry”—especially because, like Riding and Baraka, he also worked within those confines.

Cohen’s songs, and song-like texts, could also be set to, or enlivened by, many different kinds of music than the styles he himself performed them in: from Philly punk band Ruin to Buffy St. Marie’s psychedia to R&B and soul: “When it comes to lamentations, I’d much rather listen to Aretha Franklin than, say, Leonard Cohen,” as he put it in his book Death of a Lady’s Man, as if he too knew the necessity of the Black Art Aesthetic, or even suspected its superiority to the tradition he worked within more as a reformist than a revolutionary).

Cohen wasn’t even rock and roll (though he was inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame the same day Madonna, who wasn’t really rock and roll either), much less R&B or Jazz, but some of his songs were like blues and spirituals (especially if sung by Nina Simone), and matriarchal at that, as he gladly risked charges of being called a sexist or chauvinist to be more matriarchal than many male feminists who don’t take that risk. In a secular society, Cohen’s lyrics are often understood in terms of “the battle of the sexes,” but his back and forth stranger/manger bipolar dichotomy between a (non-Western Judeo Buddhist) sense of God and woman cuts far deeper than, say, Bob Dylan (who David Berman, back in 1998, accurately called mean spirited and misogynistic.)

Part of my renewed obsession with the range of art embodied by Cohen around 1999 (coinciding with the publication of the second edition of the Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader) was due to the somewhat fortuitous accident of having worked closely on a somewhat legendary album by David Berman and the Silver Jews. Berman had been called—by some—the Leonard Cohen of my generation (X), and certainly there were some notable similarities. Many who loved this band also loved Cohen—especially Death of a Ladies’ Man—the album, if not the book. And from the perspective of the world I was either trying to widen, overthrow, or simply leave, the Silver Jews, as well as Leonard Cohen, represented a legitimate opening---albeit one that was still met by resistance from many who still had a stake in keeping “poetry” generically specialized and distinct for the slightly more popular song.

I tried to fight on this front primarily, in the largely white world during this time—though it was difficult not to get bogged down and tangled up in the material conditions, the daunting logistics of trying to make some kind of peace with the contemporary entertainment industry (since Cohen and Berman were often termed "rock stars”—as well as poets, authors, and thinkers). So I could puff myself up with statements that seemed unheeded by the recalcitrant entrenched on either side of this reductive divide: art is entertainment; entertainment is art; stand-up comics are teachers and vice versa. Don’t you see! Don’t you hear! It’s not that crazy of an assertion---this is a compromise position, or something I thought we could establish first without me scaring you away as a “vulgar Marxist” or “Black Supremacist.” My mistake? I was too timid to alienate my old audience with one dramatic gesture?

In short, in contemporary poetry (excluding Riding, or Shakespeare, et al and others who were dead), I developed a Cohen/Baraka duality that I thought could explain my mission as a teacher and writer more than the (narrower) word “poet” could. While Cohen may not be especially useful on the political sphere (“democracy is coming to the USA”) as Baraka is, Baraka could be seen as less useful when it came to male-female relationships, or so-called “love poems,” especially for men or women who love “psychological romance.” But Baraka, like the band Cameo (on their charming 1986 hit “Word Up!”), doesn’t have the time for psychological romance. That doesn’t mean that Baraka didn’t write love poems (see his great 1966 poem to the woman who would become his wife)—only that he didn’t need psychological romance as much as Cohen and his admirers—both male and female—did and do.

Someone (I forget who) once told me they were in a creative writing class Baraka taught in which someone brought in what many would recognize as a “love poem” (a man to a woman, a woman to a man, a man to a man, or woman to a woman, etc). Baraka said something like, “Great, but when are you gonna write a love poem for the rest of us!” Indeed. Baraka believed in his best poems as love poems to black people, and eventually to all oppressed people---collective love poems. I say this not to diminish Cohen’s accomplished oeuvre, but only to show that the political doesn’t have to be “personal” to be intimate.

And I found myself wrestling with both writers intensely, as a way to achieve balance as a writer, reader and culture worker. Yes, wrestling---perhaps a very male-ist term to describe the process (Duncan spoke of a process, a conk) of response, and you may put this in your “anxiety of influence” pipe and smoke it. And the balance is just the set up, the outlines; some “me” or fragmented community of “self” emerges in all this, as I began to realize I could actually do more good if I traded the crown of poet laurel for the teacher’s dunce cap.


But what this tells you about “me” isn’t as important as what it speaks about contemporary possibilities in literature—the contexts in which it is written and read. This is why around 2003, I began feeling a burning need for something like an “MFA Degree in Non-Poetry” to supplement the MFA Degrees in Poetry (as the school in which I taught had begun an Degree in Non-Fiction to supplement the degree in Fiction). And, by “Non-Poetry,” I mean something different than what Oren Izenberg does (though there are some overlaps with Izenberg’s definition, which could be the subject for another essay). I bring up writers like Riding, Cohen, and Baraka because they all brought a wider sense of “the whole art” into the 20th century notion of poetry that threatens to be the 21st notion of poetry.

Each of them provides models that, in their own ways, profoundly challenge the dogmatic adherence to lyric, and provide very useful tools to restore poetry to what it was in a less specialized and insular era. You may call it “the return of the repressed.” But these three writers—as well as many others—fought to free themselves from being confined in what Riding calls “The Poet Role.” This inevitably paves the way for a more engaged poetry. In an essay on Aime Cesaire, Baraka quotes the latter saying: “Even tho I wanted to break with French Literary traditions, I did not actually free myself from them until the moment I turned my back on poetry. In fact, you could say I became a poet by renouncing poetry.” Genre isn’t just about genre (unless you’re stuck in one; non-poetry, unlike what’s called poetry these days, is not a jealous god—but can make room for performance, politics, philosophy, drama, fiction, stand-up comedy, music, dance, and even revolution….as well as the "poet's poetry" that is currently called poetry…

….to be continued….(do I have a choice?)