“…And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
— TS Eliot, Four QuartetsThere’s a new book out by Salon columnist and contrarian feminist Camille Paglia that contains 43 “of the world’s best poems” (from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell) and Ms. Paglia’s guide to their understanding. When I first saw it I shuddered: I remembered school days when we got passing or failing grades in English for our answers to questions like “What did the poet mean when s/he wrote…” My taste in poetry, as in all the arts, is amateur, eclectic and probably unexplainable. I have a weakness for dark imagery, for irony, for clever juxtapositions of words that probably create unnecessary ambiguity. I began to take it all less seriously after I took a literature interpretation question from my teacher to the author of the passage in question, and he ridiculed the absurdity of the question publicly in a humour column in the local newspaper the next day.I still have this fear that dissecting a poem will kill it.
But I did enjoy reading the original manuscripts of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (sample page above), with the aggressive editing of Ezra Pound and the gentler suggestions of Eliot’s wife shown on each page. I enjoyed reading them not because they enhanced my understanding of the meaning of this remarkable work, but because they gave insight into the collaborative process of writing it. I am sure there are nuances of meaning I am missing, that I could pick up if I studied it more carefully, but that doesn’t matter to me: It’s the way it sounds that I love, the way in which its words elegantly articulate what I realize I think, and tease out and amplify what I discover I feel, in a way that I do not care (or perhaps do not dare) to analyze. The rest, as Eliot said “is not our business”.
Does it matter if the reader misinterprets the writer’s true intellectual and emotional meaning? Is it even possible for the written (or spoken) word to convey intellectual meaning with any high degree of precision, or emotional meaning with any precision whatsoever?
Look in the right sidebar and you’ll find the songwriters (usually mostly female) whose work I have listened to most in the past week. I know the words by heart, and these songs have tremendous emotional meaning to me, but I doubt, given the incredible ambiguity of the lyrics, and even given the power of the music and voice inflection to convey emotion, that this was the precise meaning the songwriter intended. I recently heard that kids 13-17 search for music more often than porn on the Internet (the only age group with that distinction) — now that’s meaningful. But my guess is that the mix of chemicals that flow through the body and brain of each listener, triggered by a particular song, and hence the emotions that are felt or understood by each listener, are utterly different.
The sense of shared emotional experience at a music concert (or poetry reading) is likewise, while powerful, surely illusionary. I have looked at my last.fm “neighbours” (the people whose taste in music, according to the software, most closely resembles mine) and noted how many of them are my age, my gender, and my nationality — put us all in a room without our beloved music and, I’d guess, the silence would soon be deafening. We’re listening to the same stuff, but ‘hearing’ it completely differently. And so with poetry.
Perhaps then, poets should spend less time trying to be emotionally precise, and, while remaining authentic, focus more on the cleverness (in the positive sense of imaginativeness and thoughtful craftsmanship) and the emotional power of words by themselves and in particular juxtapositions and well-paced phrasings. To use a cooking metaphor, perhaps they should focus more on the quality of the ingredients and less on how they (seemingly) work together.
Here are three poems by the wonderful (in my opinion) contemporary poet Jack Gilbert (probably a violation of copyright, so I hope Mr. Gilbert excuses my use of them as examples):
The Abnormal Is Not Courage (by Jack Gilbert)
The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart (by Jack Gilbert)
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
Rain (by Jack Gilbert)
Suddenly this defeat.
I have been easy with trees
It is perhaps helpful but not essential to know that ‘Michiko’ is Gilbert’s deceased wife. Or that Gilbert is now 81, once celebrated but now largely ignored. Or that he’s been accused of misogyny. Or that his home town was Pittsburgh but he spent much of his writing life living modestly, in Europe. You can find lots of criticism and interpretation of his work online, but most of it is pretentious and dreadful — no wonder he fled and has chosen to write little in his later years. My only comment on his work is that it is well-crafted and evocative. I picked his work here because I think, for that reason alone, it lives up to e.e. cummings’ enormous charge to poets:
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets.
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
What is the purpose of all this toil, this “raid on the inarticulate”, this “fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again”?
My sense is that it is the same reason that solitary* crows sing to themselves, sometimes in their own voice, sometimes mimicking the sounds of others, even mimicking the sound of running water and wind: To keep company with themselves, to send messages to the rest of Earth, to anyone who is listening, to create something new, to find their own voice, to think out loud, to express themselves fearlessly and shamelessly. It is natural, insuppressible, our way of saying “Hello world, this is who I am!”
And now we no longer need to fear the decline of this noble work in the inexhaustible frenzy to be busy and to be commercial: The Internet, and blogs in particular, have given us, poets everyone, back our voice.
* Most crows, except each murder’s self-selected breeding pair, remain bachelors all their lives, and often overnight alone, farfrom their flock.
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David Petraitis (US)
David Wallace-Wells (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Deena Metzger (US)
Derrick Jensen (US)
Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Jan Wyllie (UK)
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jem Bendell (UK)
Jonathan Franzen (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
Kristinha Anding (US)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Richard Heinberg (US)
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Roy Scranton (US)
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Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 145 Posts, by category, from newest to oldest ---
Dying of Despair
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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