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 encore

Today planted, from Cloud Mountain Farm, a frost peach, settler apple, self-fertile plum. Here’s in which spirit – a recovered letter writ to my old teacher on WCW’s Spring and All. Maybe the most important text to me ever. Sprawly and incomprehensible though it yeah be.


Dear Don,

First, do no harm. The thing itself suffices. Nothing one says or does should injure it

patches of standing water
the scattering of small trees

Spring and All as articulated innocence. Second, to cleanse perception and return to innocence, the spring of the mind, essential simplicity –

One by one objects are defined –
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

– sharp & rough acts of imagination may be called for, the rending & renewal of the earth even –

The imagination, intoxicated by prohibitions, rises to drunken heights to destroy the world. Let it rage, let it kill…. None to remain; nothing but the lower vertebrates, the molluscs, insects and plants. Then at last will the world be made anew.

Third, against, or alongside, Pound’s “day by day make it new,” the thought that moment by moment it is new –

But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is. And this moment is the only thing in which I am at all interested …

In fact now, for the first time, everything IS new.

It was, is, always new, & now at long last perception, cleansed by the divine flood imagination has unstoppered, catches up with reality –

It is spring. That is to say, it is approaching THE BEGINNING.

Spring and all. Spring in all. Fourth, the poem is not about reality, it is of reality. This might seem a poem about a painting of a pot of flowers –

red where in whorls
petal lays its glow upon petal
round flamegreen throats

– but it’s not actually about anything, it just is … being, disclosed, its unconcealedness. (Right, that is to say, under your nose.)

Fifth, being real, being of what is real, it’s natural, one of the forms of nature –

The work will be in the realm of the imagination as plain as the sky is to a fisherman – A very clouded sentence. The word must be put down for itself, not as a symbol of nature but a part, cognizant of the whole – aware – civilized.

– linking Williams to Coleridge:

it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.

Organic form. The poem may take the shape of

the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines –

or that of a crowd

moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them –

but it is organic. (And is not always pretty. Pretty is the road to a beautiful illusion, i.e., a divorce from experience. Whatever it is, rose petal, jaundiced eyeball, let it be unvarnished.) As long as it sees clearly and mimics naught and has no truck with the representational delusion, it is, of necessity, organic. Which brings to mind Robert Bringhurst, whose book The Tree of Meaning I do mean to bring you –

Trees grow in and on the earth. Where do stories grow? They grow in and on storytelling creatures. Stories are epiphytes: organisms that grow on other organisms, in much the same way staghorn ferns and tree-dwelling lichens … grow on trees.

I have a hunch that from a lichen’s point of view, the basic function of a tree is to provide a habitat for lichens. I have a hunch that from a story’s point of view, the function of storytelling creatures – humans for example – is to provide a habitat for stories. I think the stories might be right. That’s what you and I are really for: to make it possible for certain kinds of stories to exist.

– or Weil, whom he quotes:

Il leur appartient de témoigner à la manière d’un pommier en fleurs, à la manière des étoiles.

Sixth, more continuity with Coleridge, his sense of the imagination as what

reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects (etc.)


You see I was doing rhizome mind here right?


For Williams too imagination takes disparate parts of experience (“the sight of the sky through a dusty window, birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky, the sound of music from his radio, feelings of anger and love and amusement roused by a letter just received” – Levertov) and joins them into wholes that reveal – what? – that experience was whole to begin with, a small quibbling mind made it seem broken & partial. Poem VIII seems a conscious illustration of just how many & disparate the elements are that can be united: a rhombus of sunlight on a wood floor, song, tires, anemones, Persephone spirited away, an industrial magnate (J. Pluto Morgan), how much & how many it is impossible

to say, impossible
to underestimate –
wind, earthquakes in

Manchuria, a
partridge
from dry leaves

Each stanza here, each plaque of mind-light, seems a place from which one can move in any and all directions. The freedom of the imagination detoxed of prohibition.

This is not “fit” but a unification of experience

The oneness of experience is the oneness of a rose with the space that surrounds it

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space

nor does it bruise space

each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved

columns of air –

It ends, is edged. Also, pervades, is edgeless. It is at the edge where petal meets air that love moves and lives. Which, seventh, is why “The Red Wheelbarrow” is about its prepositions – about, that is, stationing, edges, points of contact –

So much depends
upon                                                    (and this sort of stationing is on a par with

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain                               this sort
water

beside the white                               and this)
chickens

Finally, given all this, how then does one proceed? One moment

a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain –

and then the next

I saw a girl with one leg
over the rail of a balcony

of all of which it is unseemly to speak

It is the presence of a

&

The imagination is a –

Love,
Chris

Student work: Write spring

The exercise was to write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.

Not a poem “about” spring, that’s easy. A poem that is spring, be’s spring, bees spring, in its flesh, its bones. How do you write a poem that’s green, that’s growth, motion, variance, blowsiness, or whatever spring is to you – no, in you – such that it comes across, takes root in reader, flowers and seeds there?

Many fell into the trap of subject matter, and that’s okay, it’s a good where to start from. By the time we were done talking of Williams’s Spring and All they got, I think, what it is to meet spring, eyeball-to-eyeball, a gist of it anyway.

And for sure our talk of the supreme importance of the spectacle

an elderly man who
smiled and looked away

to the north past a house—
a woman in blue

who was laughing and
leaning forward to look up

into the man’s half
averted face

and a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain—

passing namelessly landed for me, and that was them teaching me, I learned more about the line there as such, its supremacy (if that word might ever be rescued for re-use) and ephemerality.

More than one did get what it was to enact spring but only one gave me hers back to post. This is by Hannah Bender and it’s made of joy –

YOU

—doublemint cars dusty ceramic roses unpainted fingernails white underwear white undershirt white ankle socks nineteen fifty seven chevy bel air in pink and cream leather pearly cocaine pears and game hen hospital wall green punch bougainvillea bunny teacup airplanes red velveteen movie theater milk chocolate strawberry gift wrap hair throw up cake mice tv saint francis bambi’s mother anne frank donald duck orange juice baths buttons—

I asked her about it, she said something like, you don’t have to wait for spring for it to be spring. You just take any moment and look at it close enough – spring is coiled in there. I hope I have that right; I think she put it better.

Anyway she put it beautifully – she got the intention of the assignment better than I ever did when I came up with it. Those em-dashes, I imagine reaching into any moment of perception, physically prying it open, and those dashes are the beams I prop in to keep it from slamming closed on me while I walk among the moment’s occult contents.


Cornell - Celestial
Which are the poem. Also come to mind Cornell’s boxes, which, whatever in specific they contain, have as one of their utterances spread evenly over all they hold, I’m glad you are.


Look topside. My “featured image” removes the boxed from the box. Why’s that feel like an injury? But it does. When’s sampling a denaturing? It is, sometimes. Spring couldn’t spring had it no winter to push off from.


Almost forgot the title of Hannah’s but you see how it matters. The whole poem’s a synonym for its title yes?

Springly exercises

That’s a wrap on Spring and All and great good fun it’s been. Dunno if I’ve had a class meet this one so freely or fleetly before. Here are their first exercises in case any’d like to play along:

  • Write a poem that interrupts itself more than once.
  • Write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.
  • Write a poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Any familiar with Spring and All will get why. (WILLIAM LOGAN. YOU COULD TRY THESE. IF YOU THINK THE HISTORICAL WHEELBARROW MATTERS TRY THESE.

And I quote, “The only realism in art is of the imagination.”

And I quote, “First must come the transposition of the faculties to the only world of reality that men know: the world of the imagination.”

And I quote, “poetry: new form dealt with as a reality in itself.”

WILLIAM LOGAN. THE PROVENANCE OF THE RED WHEELBARROW DON’T MATTER. READ THIS. SAVE YOURSELF. WE SUFFER W/ YOU.
                – da white chickens

and no we no Plato)


So much to say about this little poem, which is so easily denatured, benumbed, by anthologies, high school classrooms. Students often come to college hating it. Or, worse, thinking it a metaphor. Consider, there’s no metaphor in it –

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

How, though, does it tell us not to cut to metaphor? Its particularity. There aren’t a lot of particulars, but those there are, they have roughness, rugosity, they refuse the reduction, the simplification, the let’s just say it dumbing-down, you gotta do to a thing before you can make it tenor in a metaphor, and space-tie it to a vehicle. That the rainwater glazes the surface it lies on, makes it tangible, specific, momentary, and unconvertible.

It’s language, so it’s part of a system of semiotic exchanges, no way round that, but it resists entry into the second-order system of exchanges that sustain literary tropes like metaphor. It refuses to be made currency.

What depends on a red wheelbarrow,

I asked them to consider, beforehand, and please commit it to paper?

—And be particular?

—The poem, one said, depends on it.

Yeah, good answer.

The wheelbarrow is, as one student said, touching our earlier talk of Buber’s I-Thou, let be a value in itself. Though it’s in ordinary use a tool, instrument, for the sake of the poem it’s a good in itself. (Coulda gone to Heidegger there but thought to spare her. But think Van Gogh’s worn out shoes.)

I got tenor and vehicle the wrong way round up there, but I ha!, like my metaphor too well to bother to fix it.


This one is, by the by, for my old teacher Don Revell. I wonder how he is.

Much else I’d love to say, but time presses, and appetite. I treated myself last night to a Dungeness crab after a tenured colleague made me sad, angry, perplexed by poaching my classroom from me – today I well remember I’m contingent labour – and half’s in the fridge there awaiting me eagerly.

So I won’t try to say all the else about the poem I learned today from talking with my students about it. Why it’s a not the red wheelbarrow – the definite article would be more particular but at the cost of exclusion. And how much world comes to mind metonymically, a barnyard and American era, without the edge-smoothing of metaphor (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”). That each line is a moment of perception beseeching total attention. For reals, see how it’d be broke if the lines broke different –

glazed with
rain water

beside the
white chickens

– it’s destroyed, right? All the held energy, everything bearing the elements up in a network of dynamic tensions, gone. Line as perceptual trace. A whole world for as long as it lasts, and gone when it’s gone. So the next can live.

WILLIAM LOGAN – oh, why do I bother?

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.

 

Student Blog: Piles of Distinct Pieces

At the end of oh a long day. Woke at 2am to a possum scratching noisily at a hatch to the crawlspace under my bedroom window and that went on some hours. Now after office hours, teaching, teaching prep, and an edifying but mind-twisting course at the local REI on orienteering with map and compass – now a glass of white wine and a big fat artichoke steaming to be had with butter and garlic, and in the gap as it steams one more blog for you.

So here’s a blog, as all these have been so far, on seeing freshly. In this case, seeing what’s real in the daily, unique in the ostensibly interchangeable. A very William Carlos Williams sort of blog.

Pennies, for instance, we act as if one were as good as another. Look at them better, though, and each is its own creature, has its own smudges, patina, has carved its own arc through the ether to your pocket or your change jar.

pennies

Or stones. Everyone talks about snowflakes. Fuck snowflakes. Stones are very different from other stones. Why don’t they get some fucking press?

stones 2

Why’s this matter. We live in a world system that’d make a given face, a person, interchangeable with every other, if it could, and maybe it could. To recuperate one penny or scrap of stone from all the others and say – this. In that plain ordinary moment attention is love, squishy yeah but that’s the word for it, and nothing the world commodity system raping the earth and our spirits can do will undo the moment, and the system has to fall back and die.

Doesn’t fall back far. Doesn’t die for long. But does a little, does a bit, and’s good and good again.