Monday, April 13, 2009

They Shoot Unicorn Structures

Nada Gordon left some characteristically wowing comments on my last blog entry about Barbara Guest and the pitfalls of poetic structure. The full quotation from Guest is this:
“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.”

Barbara Guest, “A Reason for Poetics” in Forces of Imagination
Nada writes:
There’s a fundamental problem with her thinking here.

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.
I responded (having initially quoted only the second sentence in Guest’s passage above):
Hi Nada,

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.)
Nada answers:
Hi Rodney!

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?
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:
“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.”


Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

I originally read "terrible possessiveness" as a positive, like a sort of covetousness that is excessive but nonetheless is undeniably love. Instinctively or whatever, that seemed like a natural way for a poet to relate to a poem. But maybe that says more about me.

I love this conversation! There should be Nada versions of all quotes.

rodney k said...

Hi Stan,

Thanks for weighing in. If the terrible possessiveness is a positive quality--& it looks like that may be what Guest intends--then I'm not sure I can really get down with the statement. Except that it would leave the "decoration" of the structure as a necessary thing, instead of a distracting one, which I like, since structure's usually so overbearing and macho.

The sentence doesn't really bear out this reading, but if "terrible possessiveness" is a virtue, then I'd like to imagine the unicorn of language, rather than the poem itself, admiring the weave of the fence. That hard-to-define (maybe undefinable) quality that makes language compelling in a poem sticks around because it happens to like this particular arrangement of words.

Paul Squires said...

What a lovely colourful post. "A Reason For Poetics" Haha, no wonder Ms Guest is forced into such a nonsensical mix of image and tortured syntax, she is trying to make a reason for something which has absolutely no purpose.

William Keckler said...

Love the post title, Rodney lol.

When I read the Guest quote the first time, I took the last statement as a caveat.

But when I reread it, I saw it as an affirmation of her poetics.

Then it made Guest-sense to me.

I was reading If So, Tell Me again last night and wowed by her abilities to make these strange film shorts which play out convincingly, with actors who remain in shadow, faceless, and with voice parts which are never attributed. They tend to remain chronologically unlocatable. Ahistorical? Art refuses history in her often Mannerist take on art history.

Even when you think you know where you are temporally in a Guest poem ("Wild Gardens...," the Dora Maar poem, etc.) she uses those secret passages, takes the Subterranean again just as H.D. always did.

(I'm wondering if some of these poems aren't outtakes from her book of cinematic poems; subject matter and everything else point that direction.)

Embrasure is a word I don't think I have seen since Poe. That's one of the charms of Guest--she always makes me wish there were more words in the English language. Some poets make me wish there were less. Well, she certainly imports from many foreign languages with taste and discretion, to supplement any perceived dearth.

I'm thinking of the unicorn seating himself on the Virgin's lap with that quote too. Perhaps she's suggesting that one must be revirginized before the language, to get back to some sort of Edenic mind.

I always get that from her poems. She renews language for me as few poets do.

Oddly enough, she strikes me as one of the closest things to Rilke in American poetry.

They both have that ability to create poems which hover between embodiment and disembodiment.

This is how poems come to be like actual beings for me; they absorb and release presence both.

Sometimes I imagine or remember that Michaux did something like this, but when I look for the poems I remember along these lines, I can never find them again.

Maybe I hallucinated that.

Anyhoo, I enjoyed reading the Guest-thinking here.

I think there will be much Guest-thinking in AmPo as the years go on.

I think "decoration" has undergone linguistic pejoration, and that's why many would read that as a caution, when it's probably a celebration of her own perverse strengths and understanding of language's lack of embarrassment before its own ornateness and orotundity.

She knew the fine line she walked...

"A special timing / of hand-held meter, / risky when used by buffoon."

I don't think it was just prosody she was earmarking there.

Because the last line of the poem is a quote: "Nothing but a fine Nerve-Meter" (Artaud)

--from "The Poetry Meter"