Close reading Paterson’s line

Another bit of heavy lifting for my Pound and Williams students. I give as example more than I can realistically expect. But I want them to see what sustained close reading, in itself and for its own sake, looks like, to aspire to.


Did a spiel on Thursday, about the difference between writing deductively (state your claim then go about finding evidence for it) and inductively (explore the evidence and learn from it what your argument is).

Said, if you already know the material thoroughly, down to the details and textures, and out to the overarching themes – go ahead and write deductively. But if the material, you’re still learning your way into it, your main discoveries are ahead of you, and really in your schoolwork that should always be the case, forget deductive, do it inductively. Don’t start with a thesis. Start with an interest or question. Then go to the text, places in it that will further your interest, sharpen your question. Ask further questions of the text to learn how it works. This assignment and the allusion chart are just that sort of attention. As insights come about how the poem is put together they may bear towards your initial question or some other more illuminating where. Follow your line of inquiry until you have some insight into the text with heft, more than local. Now you’re in a position to draft an opening paragraph and a working thesis statement. Cuz how can you know what you think till you see what you’ve said?

And they were like, Why didn’t anyone tell us this?

And I was like, I’m telling you now?

And, working it inductively is “no ideas but in things,” in practice.

Fin digression. Follows, the close reading assignment.


The poetic line is what Hugh Kenner called a “patterned integrity.” The lines of the Cantos give off clear energy signatures—we can tell whether we’re in hell or paradise, myth or history, Greece or Provence, smiley face or frowny face, by the musical qualities of the line (stress and duration patterns), by the way it casts an image on the mind’s eye, and by how it plumbs the meanings of its words (diction and syntax). In other words, melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. The energy signature changes line by line, but as we grow attuned to the Cantos, we learn to recognize some characteristic patterns, and may then be a bit less lost.

In Paterson, too, the style of patterning often changes line by line. But we’ve an added challenge: those patterns don’t settle into distinct types we can become familiar with. Each line real­ly is a new world, with new terms—sonic, rhythmic, sensory, semantic, syntactic—on which it asks to be read.

One way to face that challenge is to isolate the line as a unit of perception. This assignment asks you to do that. Pick a passage you enjoy in Paterson. Isolate one line—

(1) There is no direction. Whither? I

Close read it, without reference to lines before or after, for its qualities of sound, image, and sense, as here:

Sonically, the line seems, at first, directionless. There is no alliteration, and no obvious consonance or assonance; in fact, the values of the vowels are all over the map, as if to create directionlessness in the mouth that speaks the line. Perhaps the line’s sonic variety is part of its point. The consonants are a mixture of voiced ([ð]) and unvoiced fricatives ([ʃ]), voiced plosives ([d], [k]), approximants ([r], [w]), and nasals ([n]); the vowels range from the front middle ([ɛ]) and the near-close near-front ([i]), to the mid-central ([ə]), to the near-close near-back ([ʊ]) and the close-mid back rounded ([o]), culminating in the diphthong [ai], which joins the open near-front [a] to the near-close near-front [i]. Sonically, the sequence seems thoroughly unpoetic, if poetry is understood as shapely speech. At any rate, the line seems to want to bring the whole mouth into play. Only after a few passes do recurrent sounds emerge—the [r] sound repeats in “There,” “direction,” and “whither”; there’s something like assonance between “direction ”and “There”; a common [ð] binds “There” and “whither, while a common [i] binds “is” and “whither”; and that [i] is transformed, in the line’s final thought, into the first person singular pronoun, by the addition of the sound also made by the indefinite article [a]. What at first seems chaos may turn out to be an argument for variety.

[If you’re not fluent in IPA, use the pronunciation key found in a standard dictionary.]

Rhythmically, the line is metrical, iambic pentameter without the initial unaccented syllable—a curious way to begin for a poet wedded to free verse. All the syllables are short except “There” and “Whith-,” both at the start of their phrases, giving the sense that the phrase begins at a fixed point, then rushes or springs forward.

Imagistically, the line is almost empty—curious for a poet who proclaims, “no ideas but in things.” The opening, “There is,” suggests we will be presented with an object, a locale, something that is—but instead we are offered a negation, what is not, and what is not is an abstraction anyway—“direction.” No wonder the next thought is “Whither?” No ideas but in things, and no sense, without things, where to go next. This is the first line of the section—the poet seems to wonder where to go next—suggesting that, as with the Cantos, the crisis of how to make the poem is one of the subjects of the poem. What traces of image or activity remain in the line are etymological: “direction” comes from the Latin dirigere, “to set straight,” from dis- “apart” and regere “to guide,” cognate with regal; the derivation of “whither” is unclear. And that brings us to semantics.

Semantically, the two words connected by the ligature [ð], “There” and “whither,” are a bit at odds: “there,” taken in itself, is an indication of location, as in “there it is,” while “whither” expresses a failure of orientation. The word “direction,” which sits between them, on its own tends toward the former sense, but negated  here by “no,” enforces the latter. (And yet to say “no direction” brings direction to mind as a possibility. As telling someone not to think of pink elephants ensures they will think of pink elephants.)

The first-per­son singular pronoun, “I,” is isolated sonically (there’s no other vowel like it in the line), visually (it’s stranded at the line end), semantically (only a general sense of directionlessness ties the “I” into a framework of meaning), and syntactically: it’s the start of a third sentence. The first sentence is four words long and includes a subject and a verb. The second is one word long and includes neither subject nor verb—if a sentence at all, it is radically elided, stripped down to a raw interrogative. And the third is, as said, barely begun before it is aborted by the line end. On the level of syntax as well, then, the line is committed to asymmetry and disorder, to upending any balance, harmony, or stasis. If these attributions seem too much, consider how much would be lost, sonically, semantically, and syntactically, if “There is” were omitted from the line, or if “I” were moved down to the next.

And repeat. Continue line-by-line for about five double-spaced pages (essay format). Conclude your analysis with a paragraph that addresses this question: What expressive features of the passage has this process revealed? (Avoid using the first person here. Imagine this paragraph is part of a formal essay, in which you are drawing together findings from a sustained close reading, which you can put to work somewhere else.) Please identify, in your title, by page number, the passage you are working with. And … enjoy?

Major Authors Seminar: Pound and Williams

Description for a spring course I’m way excited to teach again.


We know Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams for a few hit singles

The apparition of these faces in the crowd.

so much depends
upon

and maybe a few sayings fit for a bumper sticker. Go in fear of abstractions. No ideas but in things. What these soundbites miss is each poet’s complex and ongoing self-reinvention. Both started as Imagists, rejecting the sentimentality they found in late Victorian verse, instead carving small hard moments of perception. From there, the two diverged, Williams becoming more invested in the local, the scruffily irregular, Pound in archetypal patterns that for him made ancient history current, distant cultures present. Both remained committed, however, to reinventing the epic, and to bringing mythic awareness to the crush of modernity.

Pound read mythology as if it were the morning newspaper.
Williams read the morning newspaper as if it were mythology.
                  —Donald Revell

Between them they initiated strands in the web of American postmodernism that continue to spread and bear fruit and further ramify to this day. Be ready for close reading of sometimes very difficult texts; the postmodern epic, there’s no mastering it, only entering and being swept through and by it. Assignments will include regular critical responses; a seminar paper to be presented to the class and revised for final submission; an allusion chart mapping a chosen passage from The Cantos; and line-by-line meticulously close reading of a chosen passage from Paterson. Our texts: Pound, selected early poems from Personae, Cathay, selections from the Cantos, selected critical writings; Williams, selected early poems, Spring and All, Descent of Winter, Paterson books I-III, selected prose.


The image atop, a detail from Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Sho-Sho Hakkei) by Sesson Shukei (1504–ca. 1590). A time-honoured theme in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting; one such series was inspiration for Pound’s “Seven-Lakes Canto,” Canto XLIX, still point in the book’s burning wheel.

Not, as far as I know, Shukei’s; it’s just for instance. The whole of it


SESSHU-Shoshohakkei

Spring and All and all

One week in, both my classes, and they’re so nice! In a life that feels, gonna just say it, a bit thin for human company, my teaching is textured, rugose. They go by fast, these students, even those I connect with beyond the usual. (They’ve got lives to get on with, yo?) But in their meteoric transits through, briefly they’re as if my kids – kids I never raised, but get to feel tender toward a spell, aren’t they.

Didn’t think to go there. (Even the ones who don’t remember my name. The ones whose names I have to reach for. Somehow, and more than formally, them too. What is that?) (A leopard makes a rhizome with a newborn baboon. Our instincts, drives, are endlessly various and flexible; are originally free; hence, maybe, art.*) (There’s a thesis for you – interspecies bonds and art happen by the same mechanisms.**)

My mind goes this way, these ways, thanks to William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, first text of our rhizome workshop, whose motive is life and more life, life in nooks and crannies, life in standing water and sickbeds. Spring and yes are synonyms.


It’s late, Sunday tracking to Monday, so just this, second para:

There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather, the whole world is between:

Consider how odd that is. Intimacy with the world is intact. Consciousness of intimacy with the world is intact. There’s a barrier, and it’s constant, but it’s not anywhere you’d think to posit it. More than intact, maybe, inviolable, and yet, a barrier, a constant one.

And more – the barrier between you and your awareness of intimacy with the world – is the world. How are you not intimate with that?

Dharma of a red wheelbarrow. Why the participle glazed matters, why the prepositions, their stationing in mental space, matters.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens


And a key to Paterson. I think so. Williams is a shitkicker, but his question’s a loving one, why don’t we treat each other more tenderly as we might? That’s not rhetorical – if it were it’d be schlock. He’s really asking. He puts a life’s energy into asking.

He moved me to ask it too. I tend to ask in the first person singular, cuz the plural feels presumptuous, though as I’ve looked at my poetry this weekend, I’ve had fears of narcissism … I, I, I, the vowel in die, the vowel in live (adj.) …

In which vein, this little one came yesterday, out of crumpled disjecta, I see a bear cub, but that may be my pareidolia talking.

 

Disjecta scan 1.jpg


* Check out that link! See if you don’t think art is incipient there. In the leopard’s uncertainty – do I nurture or do I pounce. In its unfitness – how will it feed its new charge. And in its untowardness – it’s ventured where it should not have. Those are three of the uns of art, yes, no?

It’s broken, I mean, into a new space, which it, and the baby baboon, and the forest, and 2 million YouTube views all honour in their ways.

As I do you by tapping “Publish.” G’night.


** (Next morning.) Try this. Art is second-order play. Art is when play becomes the content of new play. Which could be why it feels to us both vital and inutile, and why its nature slips out of our grasp, and why we’re tempted to think of it as transcendent, when in fact it’s supervenient …

Down boy. You’re supposed to be lesson planning.