“The structure of the poem should create an embrasure inside of which language is seated in watchful docility, like the unicorn. Poems develop a terrible possessiveness toward their language because they admire the decoration of their structure.”Nada writes:
—Barbara Guest, “A Reason for Poetics” in Forces of Imagination
There’s a fundamental problem with her thinking here.I responded (having initially quoted only the second sentence in Guest’s passage above):
The decoration is the structure. I don’t know how many times I have to say that.
Without decoration (think of flowers) everything would collapse and life, unpollinated, could not continue.
In the case of a poem, it’s not like there’s a skeleton the words as flesh adhere to. The words are the poem, therefore the words (in their arrangements) are the structure.
Hi Nada,Nada answers:
I don’t know if the sentence preceding this one does more justice to her thought:
“The structure of the poem should create an embrasure inside of which language is seated in watchful docility, like the unicorn.”
Setting aside the prim “should,” I liked the Cloisters’-tapestries image of language seated unicorn-like inside the frail enclosure of the poem. The possibilities of language as a whole are there in potentia in any arrangement of words, seated in “watchful docility” behind the particular poem.
I guess Guest is shaking a finger at those poems that get too possessive of their language, thinking they’ve got the unicorn by dint of their well-wrought fence.
That’s still a diss on “decoration,” I suppose. But there’s the implication that the possessive poem isn’t able to appreciate its structure as decoration, mistaking it for something more substantial. Where in fact, language could pull up to full height and leap the fence at any time: it’s there not at the poem’s behest, but for mysterious reasons of its own.
That all sounds a little flutey now that I lift it out of Guest’s sentence, and it’s probably run off. Thanks for your comment—I should’ve have quoted the whole thing right from the start.
(What, btw, would a poem of “terrible possessiveness” look like? I feel like I know ‘em when I see ‘em—highly turned and crafted things polished to look like they’re not so crafted, or certain “book-length projects” rich in purpose but short on the pleasures of surprise—but wish I had specific examples.)
Hi Rodney!How do you read the passage: criticism or endearment? And does the notion of “poems of terrible possessiveness toward their language” ring true, as either praise or diss? Ideas/examples? Finally, here’s the Gordonized version of Guest:
Does she mean “language in potentia,” I wonder? Because she does say, in the first sentence you quoted, “their language.” I don’t mean to quibble (although I am quibbling).
I woke up thinking about all this. Just because I “loathe structure” doesn’t mean, in fact, that a conceptual structure can’t exist “outside” of a poem, like a rhyme scheme or stanza pattern. I was too glib, I guess, in my dismissal of her binaristic notion.
And I also suppose that changing a word or two in a poem doesn’t, strictly speaking, make it a different poem, although that also is something one could quibble about, until one got all caught up in Wittgensteinian definitions of definition.
Still, I have this thing in me that wants that twain (material/structure) to meet: “IN a glass not air or water/ but glass itself” (from foriegnn bodie): in other words, a form is sustained, necessitated, defined, “held up,” by its material: no separation.
and maybe that’s why I want to say that the icing is the cake, too?
I’m not sure I’m making sense here, but then, I never am.
I can’t think of any examples of the “possessiveness” of a poem because the statement doesn’t quite ring true for me; not sure, too, whether she means the statement as a criticism (as you seem to interpret it) or an endearment.
I do like its pathetic fallacy very much, however, and want to substitute “women and men” for “poems”, “charms” for “language”, and “bodies” for “structure.” I’m always happy to think of a poem in terms of an odalisque basking in self-regard.
Always happy, too, to think of anything in terms of unicorns, although if I ever write a poem that evokes anything like “watchful docility,” could you just shoot me?
“The bodies of women and men should create an embrasure inside of which charms are seated in watchful docility, like the unicorn. Women and men develop a terrible possessiveness toward their charms because they admire the decoration of their bodies.”