Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ModPo essay #3: O’Hara’s Defense of Poetry: A Proof

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES,  And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

First a few words about the title and the opening stanza. Then a few words about Imagery, and Tone, and Rhythm. Then a few words about Speakers, and Voices, and Symbolism. Then the proof of the proof.
“Why I am not a painter” is a negation. He could have easily entitled this poem “Why I am a poet.” An affirmation. He could have put a question mark at the end and made it an interrogative. Why didn’t he? Because it is not a question, fool! And because it is not a poem, it is a proof. But I am getting ahead of myself. The title is a declarative statement, a proposition. 
The second alert is in the opening stanza. It is eerily reminiscent in structure of the Islamic declaration of faith, La Ilaha ila llah. There is no god, except the one God. (I am not a painter, I am a poet. Get it?) Two independent clauses separated by a comma. Not only connected, but commutative. A refutation followed by an affirmation. A dialectic. O’Hara asserts in a very logical way, to a disbelieving and hypocritical art world, that poetry is superior to other art forms, i.e., there is no artistic expression equal to the pure artistic expression of Poetry, using an Islamic logic construction that preserved an Aristotelian logic function that preserved the purity of mathematical truth in a continuous thread from the ancients to the moderns.
IMAGERY. Sardines appears in all caps three times. Once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Spirit. A clear reference to Christian symbolism. And finding Mike’s painting hanging in the gallery at the end of the poem suggests that O’Hara thinks religious faith has found its final resting place with all the other curious historical artifacts in galleries and museums. His poem, his proof, at the level of imagery, is a pastiche, an appropriation of the oft-cited Bertrand Russell essay, Why I am not a Christian. Same construction.
TONE: conversational but slightly ambiguous, definitely an anti-narrative (One day, i.e., once upon a time).
ATTITUDE: uncertain, self-effacing, doubtful. O’Hara says: “I think I would rather be a painter…” So he is not sure, he only thinks so. He expresses a some doubt only to draw you in. He appears pitiable. Everybody loves a whining doubter. So you lower your resistance and he slices your aorta! Think also rhymes with drink. Let’s not take it too seriously. RHYTHM. A definite syncopation with alliteration. A pristine percussion. A cool bass line with rhymes: Think, Drink, drink, drink/ I go, days go, I go, days go, I drop in/ Orange, orange, orange, orange. I can almost it hear the beat. I CAN hear the beat. Twelve poems, a twelve tone system of music...
SPEAKERS AND VOICES. There are three speakers here (another allusion to the aforementioned Trinity). On the surface, Frank is talking with Mike about the new painting. But watch the quotes in the second stanza that give it away: Frank: “Where’s SARDINES?”; Second person: All that’s left is just letters (Maybe Frank thinking…); Mike: “It was too much.”
SYMBOLISM. Refer back to Imagery above. Could Mike’s SARDINES in the gallery be a reference to Goya's painting the Burial of the Sardine? Goya doesn't illustrate the fish in his painting, either, and, “All that's left is just the letters.” The letters in Goya's painting spell out Mortu (Death). Again, the Gallery where O’Hara see’s Goldberg’s Sardines is a resting place for paintings, a type of burial. The end of the road. The end. It is a death of sorts. It is also an allegory to death and resurrection. But that is the subject for another essay. ORANGE on the other hand "symbolizes endurance and strength, the color of fire and flame. It represents the red of passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom. It is the symbol of the sun,” as permanent a natural representation as we know.
And the proof of the proof is already alluded to. Poetry is immortal. The syncopation, the imagery in words, the symbolic representation all endure beyond the end of the exhibition, beyond the life of the gallery. The proof itself, ultimately, reveals O’Hara’s metaphysical conceit, establishing an analogy between the spiritual qualities of orange (endurance) and sardines (the death and resurrection of the Trinity) as religious symbols and the superiority of poetry as an art form to convey values and principles.

ModPo essay #2: Does WCW add a new dimension to the imagist manifesto?

It is clear that version 2 follows the imagist manifesto more closely than version 1. In this short essay, we will look at each aspect of the manifesto and point out how the second version approximates the standard better than the first. A close read, however, reveals an additional difference that perhaps should be added to the original manifesto. In the conclusion we will take a brief look at that additional idea.
1. Language of common speech. Version 1 begins, “while she sits,” while version 2 begins, “she sits.” Immediately the reader observes the economy of language of version 2, versus the superfluous use of language in version 1. Common speech implies a smaller vocabulary and an economy in the use of language, words. Version 2 refers later to “the child,” while version 1 refers to “this little child who,” another example of common language use in the 2nd version.
2. Free verse/cadence. Version 2 follows a constant cadence throughout. It is almost predictable in its consistency. There is no change in idea, thus no need to change the cadence, the rhythm of the poem. Version 1 changes cadence at the 4th stanza, “this little child, who robs her,” though there is no need to introduce a new idea, and in fact, it is clear in version 2 that maintaining the cadence and the idea makes for a more efficient delivery of the message.
3. Absolute freedom in the choice of a subject. Not much to say about that. Both versions freely choose a woman and a child as subjects.
4. Render particulars exactly, avoid vagueness. There is a staticness, an exactness in version 2 that is not captured in version 1. For example, in version 2 “she sits,” with “the child in her lap,” as opposed to, again, “while she sits there (of course it is "there," where else would it be but "there?"),” and what pray tell, is all the business about the child robbing her? The child just “is.”
5. Hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite. See #1 and #4 above.
6. Concentration. Version two is much more concentrated in its structure, more compacted, even shorter in overall length (10 vs 12 lines). Version 2 has seven lines with two words or less. Version 1 only has five lines with two words or less. The structure of version two is much more concentrated on and around the central theme of the poem.
Finally, a difference WCW introduces between the two versions that may be implied, but is not fully explicated in the manifesto, is the use in version 1 of a dynamic, progressive present tense (“while” she sits, child who “robs” her (a continuous action), “knows nothing of his theft,” “rubs his nose”) while version 2 uses a very simple present (she sits) and a very simple past participle (nose pressed) to counterbalance the excess motion going on in version 1. Could this verb thing be WCW’s addition to the imagist manifesto? I think so.

ModPo essay #1: Emily Dickinson's Initiation Rite of Passage

I taste a liquor never brewed (214)

by Emily Dickinson

I taste a liquor never brewed – 
From Tankards scooped in Pearl – 
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I – 
And Debauchee of Dew – 
Reeling – thro' endless summer days – 
From inns of molten Blue – 

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door – 
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" – 
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – 
And Saints – to windows run – 
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
The central theme of this poem is initiation. It is an initiation into a special order. And it is an on-going initiation that lasts a lifetime.
The idea of initiation is introduced metaphorically in the first stanza’s first two lines, but it is a well-hidden metaphor. Close examination of the “Tankard” metaphor begins its unraveling. It starts with the use, in the 18th and 19th century, of a shilling coin to make daily restitution to members of the British Army and the Royal Navy in exchange for their conscripted service.[i] Acceptance of the King’s Shilling[ii] constituted an agreement to serve and an implicit initiation into military service. The shilling coin was hidden in the bottom of a tankard filled with an alcoholic beverage, with the result that “uninitiated” drunken soldiers and sailors accepted the shilling unaware of the commitment they may have made. During the 19th century, a glass-bottomed tankard was developed to help those young men who did not wish to be conscripted to avoid acceptance of the King’s Shilling, and hence to avoid conscription into military service.[iii] ED’s tankard was not glass-bottomed. It was “scooped in pearl,” a jewel more highly valued than a shilling coin. And because it contained “a liquor never brewed,” one might conclude that her conscription, her initiation was not unwanted, nor induced by trickery. The unbrewed alcohol, however, that lured her is rare and exceptional, exceeding in quality all the “Vats on the Rhine,” i.e., all beverages brewed in Germany, which at that time was the world’s leading producer of alcoholic beverages.
In the second stanza, ED provides additional insights into the initiation process. As an initiate, she is also an “inebriate” and a “debauchee,” both nouns, but both owners of substances not normally suspected of producing a strong kick, i.e., air and dew. As an aside, air that inebriates and dew that debauches both speak to end products of distillation and one of its by-products, condensation, i.e., “the distillation that would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.” (Whitman). The second stanza also introduces the idea of Summer, suggesting that the first stanza is Spring and the third Autumn, since the fourth is obviously Winter. (Idea discussed at the Washington DC ModPo group meeting, September 21, 2012.).
In the third stanza, ED sees herself as the drunken Bee who intentionally and deliberately alights and pollinates the Foxglove flower (door), adhering closely to the Biblical theme of eating from the tree of mixed (good and bad) knowledge. The Foxglove is a herbal flower that is poisonous to humans, but is also used as a drug to slow down the heartbeat, regularize the pulse, and as an antidote to other poisons. [iv] She also sees herself as a “Butterfly,” who flitters without care from flower to flower, never deeply indulging in any particular one. But when the groundskeepers who tend to the Foxglove bushes attempt to shoo the bees away, or when the Butterflies, by their own choice, “renounce” their fair share of nectar, their dram[v] (the amount of rum to which a sailor was entitled each day in the Royal Navy), ED makes up for the difference by consuming their share and more.
But what is it that ED consumes? ED consumes ideas, she consumes wisdom. She refers to it as a liquor never brewed because it is intoxicating and inebriating in its natural form.
The final stanza completes the initiation process. Seraphs, angels, spiritual beings “swing their snowy Hats” because it is winter in the poem, the flowers have fallen off the trees and the nectar in plants have ceased to flow. Perhaps it is also winter in ED’s life. Yet, even in this stanza, even in old age, ED refers to herself as a Tippler, one who continues to consume the wisdom, the ideas, in excess, even in the winter years of her life, deriving warmth and energy from the Sun, the eternal source.
[ii] Op.cit.