How resonant diction and correspondence propel a poem: Part 1 in what we look for at Tupelo Press

Posted on November 16, 2011


    In my last post I promised a discussion of the “craft annotation” and, by extension, an explanation of why the meticulous work of annotating poems is so very valuable to the further work of the writer. The value of a craft annotation derives from the way it closely examines the inner workings of a poem in order to pose, then answer, questions about how a particular poet in a particular poem is making good things happen. Or not.

When we take the trouble to annotate a poem, we learn how to say, “Here, in this poem, these very particular craft techniques are used to such-and-such an effect,” and in doing this close work we learn by example “how to do it” ourselves.

In a coming post I’ll outline several key craft techniques that you might be looking for, and I’ll reproduce several sample craft annotations generously donated to me by several different poets, in order to give you a better sense of what I mean by “craft annotation” (and a better sense of how to do them yourself). However, today’s blog post is more an introduction to the notion of how “correspondence” works in the imagery of a poem (or not), although it does contain a (very) short craft annotation (my own) of Louise Glück’s “Mock Orange.”

That “Mock Orange” annotation follows an exploration of certain craft-related questions: What makes for resonant and urgent diction in a poem? What effect does such diction have on “correspondence” between the human and the symbolic? And finally, what effect does successful “correspondence” have on our experience of time itself in a poem?

These are difficult, layered, and interwoven issues. There will not be a quiz. But that said, having talked in earlier posts about how we read manuscripts at Tupelo Press, I do want to discuss here in some detail what we look for in the individual poems that comprise a successful manuscript.

And that said, please know that these are hard times for independent, nonprofit literary presses in America. We launched a fund drive last Friday, and I’m going to ask you directly: if you are finding some value in these posts, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to Tupelo Press. In order to meet our 2012 budget we are hoping to raise $15,000 by December 31.

Well then. I’m sure you’ll agree that we can’t really talk about time (or much of anything else) without inviting St. Augustine to the party. In his Confessions (Book XI, Chapter XXIII), in a single breathless and breath-taking paragraph, Augustine tackles the problem of time. It’s a paragraph that contains nearly post-modern moments:

29. I once heard a learned man say that the motions of the sun, moon, and stars constituted time; and I did not agree. For why should not the motions of all bodies constitute time? What if the lights of heaven should cease, and a potter’s wheel still turn round: would there be no time by which we might measure those rotations and say either that it turned at equal intervals, or, if it moved now more slowly and now more quickly, that some rotations were longer and others shorter? And while we were saying this, would we not also be speaking in time. Or would there not be in our words some syllables that were long and others short, because the first took a longer time to sound, and other others a shorter time? O God, grant men to see in a small thing the notions that are common to all things, both great and small. Both the stars and the lights of heaven are “for signs and seasons, and for days and years.” This is doubtless the case, but just as I should not say that the circuit of that wooden wheel was a day, neither would that learned man say that there was, therefore, no time.

Mostly we imagine time in the safest way possible for that imagining to occur: as a straight line along which we move from past through present into the future. All the parts of the line are external each to each. This is the time in which we keep our appointments and pay our bills punctually and reckon each day in the calendar as identical with another (except our heightened sense of a day like Friday: 11/11/11 – a date that feels like a one-off, a date that won’t, in fact, ever come again — until the next millennium, just as it has come before).

But as we all know, where time becomes an intimate and personal reality, the line bears little resemblance to the concrete reality of time and its passage. Yesterday came before today, certainly; but yesterday can also be present and potent in the experience of today. And the experience of today is, for each of us, the “reality” of today. And tomorrow, which has not arrived, may already spoil or redeem today.

The poet may therefore abandon the straight line of chronology – even the very texture of chronology, in order to give the sense of past, present, and future as layers that underlie each other. And even that metaphor doesn’t do: for the layers do not lie under but penetrate each other. The lyric lives as much in no time as in all time. Therefore the lyric, and what “happens” in the lyric, is heightened simultaneously by its single, closely-observed place in time and by its necessary claim on all time. The lyric waltzes out in a spotlight, then, and the attention it gives must be equal to the attention it demands. It dances with the stars while dancing with the stars.

But first, back to time. Even more problematic (as Augustine seemed to know) time doesn’t have the simple homogeneity of space. Dense and concentrated here, rarefied and vacuous there, the parts of time are not indifferently equal to one another. The unique qualities of each of our moments extend, distend, and leap over the continuum of time, if in fact time’s a continuum at all. An event that occurred thirty years ago is so charged with meaning for me that it feels closer that much that happened yesterday. To pick a mild example, everybody can remember with emotional clarity the moment some teacher first took an unkind cut at us, and perhaps far less possibly, the time a teacher first said something memorably kind.

Inevitably, time’s elusive caprices demand comparison with the world of Einstein’s wormhole shortcuts through spacetime. The comparison is permissible provided we understand that the artist’s discovery is his/her own and independent of such ideological scavenging. The poem is given to becoming, in a phrase coined by Erich Auerbach in his Mimesis, “multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and multi-perspectival.”

What I’m interested in here is poem-time, and more particularly, the urgent and resonant diction that propels a poem structurally. What’s often missing in the almost working poem is just that purposeful quality of diction—propulsive, urgent, resonant—that fixes a poem in time and launches it out of time. So often in poems – the ones that announce themselves as not-yet-finished – the vehicle of the poem dissolves into ideas without setting out the dangers. In a minute, I’ll get to a poem that doesn’t dissolve into ideas: one that sets out the dangers, one whose diction is all about the urgency and resonance that propels it structurally.

What does time have to do with urgency? The sculptor Noguchi once remarked: “The work that haunts my imagination the most, and the one to which I would like my own to aspire is—Stonehenge.”  The contemporary artist dares to enter once again that world of the imagination, more encompassing than the boundaries of realism. To find what we seek we go back beyond the canon of classical art to the mystery of the prehistoric. One can easily see why this ruin should haunt a modern sculptor’s imagination. Art, to continue to be what it is, challenges itself to effect a radical return to its own source, against all the centrifugal whirl of modern life, to what remains still the artist’s perpetual center of departure and return.

Proposition: time is established through its absence; every elemental universal moment disintegrates into its particulars, and the poem lives and breathes in those particulars. What is it about those sparrows of Keats’s, pecking at the gravel? Nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel. (Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817)

So, let’s dissolve the moment with the aid and abetting of some urgent and resonant diction. Permit me to propose that the answer to the questions I posed in the last paragraph lies in the way a closely-observed moment levers toward urgency.  The poem’s power and authority reside within the notion that particular (and feel-able) risks have been taken by the speaker—something hard to say, something nearly impossible to say, is ventured. (This is what makes me sad, this is what I adore, this is what I hate, this is what I fear.) Once the hard thing is said (or suggested), then there’s danger on the page. It takes a special sort of nerve to spell (just enough) the connection between the imagery (symbols) of the outer world and what the poet wants us to take from that imagery about how that imagery enhances, reflects, refracts and intensifies the poet’s inner landscape.

How overtly drawn does this correspondence have to be? I think the answer is: just overt enough so that readers can feel the risk taken. Whether or not a reader actually feels the danger on the page depends entirely upon whether the poet has provided us with sufficient correspondence between description and metaphor on one hand, and what’s human, on the other. There must be that ineluctable tension between what we understand abstractly and what we feel concretely. Without that kind of correspondence (and corresponding tension) there’s no felt urgency. Without those risks, the description and metaphor, no matter how well turned, turn merely symbolic. Without sufficient evidence of that correspondence, a symbol is just a symbol, stripped, then, of its power, like an electric circuit whose wiring reaches a dead end: the light won’t go on. Sound and fury are fine, so long as they signify something. Within this correspondence—this levering—the real work of the poem gets done. And when enough of the real work of the poem gets done, then we get to feel the way in which the nothingness of Macbeth’s “to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow tomorrow” weigh upon him, or the chill, alienation with which Wallace Steven’s secret sharer in “The Snowman” comes to “beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In the right hands, nothing becomes quite something.

For example, if in the Queen’s line: “There is a willow grows aslant a brook / That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream” that willow and those hoar leaves and that glassy stream carry emotional weight (and do they ever!), it’s because we know what’s at risk for Hamlet, as the Queen further dissolves Hamlet’s world, stops his time. Those metaphors lock you into the moment while simultaneously resonating in past (Ophelia’s suicide) and future (Hamlet’s felt reaction to it). (There’s enough at stake in this moment for a composer like Frank Bridge to create an entire symphonic poem around the Queen’s lines, and “before” that, Berlioz and “after” that, Saint-Saëns.) The Queen does the talking, and in doing so, makes a Hamlet of you, wrapping you in the horrors of her circumlocution. Her potter’s wheel slows down and time slows down, then speeds up with a terrible swiftness. Metaphorical language can stop time, or take us out of time, while making time past and future quiver more insistently all around. And this quivering and tension between stopped time and hypersensitive consciousness of time is proportional to the work of, the intensity of, the dangers risked, within the poem.

Let’s look at an example of a poem that achieves, brilliantly, sparely, economically, exactly the sort of correspondence I’ve been talking about. Here is “Mock Orange by Louise Glück.  In this poem, a meditation on post-coital sadness and the disappointments of marriage, the relationships between image, metaphor and point of view of the speaker trigger feeling in an immediate and powerful way.

It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.

I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
The man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
paralyzing body—

and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union—

In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.

How can I rest?
How can I be content
When there is still that odor in the world?

(From The Triumph of Achilles. Ecco, 1985)

No one can say about this poem that it dissolves into ideas without setting out the dangers. There’s plenty of risk on the page, although most of the power happens in an almost clandestine way, when the poem shifts to that “split into the old selves.” It’s that split, that post-coital tristesse, that causes the speaker to know that “We were made fools of,” and then that brilliant yoking of the literal with the actual shrub, which itself is mock and mocking. The inherent doubleness of “that odor” hands us the literal shrub and the psychic sex simultaneously. The especially resonant diction that propels the poem structurally, or some of it, anyway, happens in “lighting” and “sealing,” “premise of union,” “fused,” “mounts and mounts,” “split,” “fools,” “scent of mock,” “drifts,” and “still.”

Because the correspondence between the shrub and the human are made so vividly (thoughtfully, structurally) through all of that urgent and resonant diction, the mock orange shrub transcends the merely symbolic: it shares and enhances the emotional weight of the poem. The metaphorical language, then, stops time, even takes us out of time. The tension between stopped time, here, and the exquisite consciousness of time (right up to and right past that “split,” right up to and through “We were made fools of,” right up to and beyond the persistence of “that odor in the world” and the stillness that produces it) owes everything to the intensity of the dangers that Glück risks on the page.

For now, I leave you with this extraordinary take on time from Grace Dane Mazur – time as baklava — from her forthcoming novel About Time. The writing here is so gorgeous that it might just as well be poetry:

His hands tingled. This dinner table conversation was only an interruption if one thought of time as linear, as a single line, with a unique direction. Still, how to concentrate on everything at once? Was it a matter of sliding new moments in between the preexisting seconds? What was a moment, anyway? Clearly the shortest span of time that can be represented. In any of the arts, that was. He now saw these moments as sheets of gold leaf, hammered thin, slipped in between the seconds, which were made of blue stone, each golden leaf the temporal locus for new thoughts. Or was it more a matter of layering, so that each second had a stack of other moments on top, a baklava of time. And if Time wasn’t flat? Then maybe not sheaves like baklava after all, but more like kataifi, those nests made of shredded pastry, he saw the pastry threads as silver, this time. Suppose each of those strands branched into trees of silvery time growing out from each second, all of them inhabited by his thoughts and his breath. For breathing had somehow entered into his conception of time, inspiration and expiration. He needed the gods to breathe into him, breathe through him like a flute.  (p 181-2, copyright 2011, Grace Dane Mazur.)

May the gods breathe as sweetly into all of our work.  And in those resonant words of Augustine, may you be granted “the ability to see in a small thing the notions that are common to all things, both great and small.”

Posted in: Poetry