Poetry & Memorability
Mark Irwin | December 2010
"The artist's task," according to Kafka, "is to lead the isolated individual into the infinite life."1 Certainly that would be an attribute to the memorable—but what else? In his essay "On the Origin of the Work of Art,"2 Heidegger argues that art, in its origin, is a way in which truth comes into being. He says in essence that the function of art is "to push being out of forgetfulness." For this notion he returns to the ancient Greek word "aletheia": a (apart from) Lethe (the river of forgetfulness). In classical antiquity, after people died they had to first cross the river of forgetfulness. According to Heidegger, art occurs in a phenomenal opening in which there is both concealing and revealing.
The tension that occurs as the work of art comes into being might be best understood as mystery. Keats says in a letter to John Taylor that "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance."3 W.S. Merwin on the other hand suggests that original poetry might be likened "to an unduplicatable resonance, something that would be like an echo except that it is repeating no sound."4 Memorable works of art should seem finished to the eye, but unfinished to the mind and heart. Their closure, or lack of it, hopefully creates openings. This in fact echoes one of Kant's criteria for the sublime: it is "to be found in a formless object," or "by occasion of its boundlessness," which paradoxically makes its "totality more present to thought."5
Mystery can be a form of vanishing, and vanishing brings things to life. A snake disappearing is often more memorable than one completely visible. In his painting Six Persimmons,6 the 13th-century Sung dynasty artist Mu Ch'I provides such mystery. Two central, dark persimmons are enclosed by two gray persimmons, which are finally bordered by two ghostly, partially formed globes. A testament to the stages of enlightenment, the more ghostly persimmons suggest that awakened, innocent state.
Disappearance enlivens, and the vanishing is often a form we embrace.
Form and content are also obviously critical, but more likely than not, they are often used out of proportion: one overshadows the other. According to Frost, the form a poem makes is like "a piece of ice melting on a stove." It "must ride on its own melting."7 Form and content must use each other up completely. His incisive comment suggests the uniqueness of form as it applies to its subject matter. This notion, however, of "using itself up" conjures something else, namely that a poem must be ultimately generous; it must give all of itself away as it marvels at the world. Perhaps this is why the work of art no longer seems to belong to the artist once it enters the public domain.
Rhythm and meter can certainly make a work memorable, but too often they are appropriated, or plugged in rather than arising naturally from content, but when used in the latter sense they can "suspend the moment of contemplation," as Yeats suggested, while they also allow visualization to rapidly congeal, whether the occasion be comic or tragic.
Here is D.A. Powell's "[who won't praise green. each minute to caress each minute blade of spring. green slice us open]." Since Powell's lines are extremely long, a note of clarification is critical. The poem runs four lines: two couplets in which the title is repeated as the first line; the title, however, is enclosed in brackets.
who won't praise green. each minute to caress each minute blade of spring. green slice us open
spew of willow crotch: we float upward a whirling chaff. sunlight sings in us some glad morning
when we are called we are called ephemera. palpitating length of a psalm. who isn't halfway gone
fatherless and childless: not a who will know us. dazzled afternoon won't we widow ourselves away8
This somewhat anonymous panegyric is all the more haunting through its psalmic repetition and a readiness to continue, slowed by caesura: both natural pauses within the line, and those punctuated primarily by the period and semicolon. The poem's lyricism wants to elide the periods, but forcibly stopped conjures a paradoxical tone that reinforces the poem's theme: the ephemeral nature of life, ever more so as it is sexually propelled ("spew of willow crotch"), but resonantly tragic here since its author is HIV positive.
The couplets suggest couples, just as the italicized "glad morning" teases us with its suppressed homonym "mourning." The denied anaphora of "minute" (time) to "minute" (small), a trochaic to an iambic stress, gives a sense of cutting or clipping away at the vegetal world: "green slice us open." In addition, just as the lyricism wishes to elide its caesuras, the poem's end words, with the exception of the last, seem to stop but can also be read as continuous and thus provide more multiple meanings, especially between stanzas one and two, since the run on might imply "called home" in a religious sense, one of several sacred moments that are undermined by the notion of vegetal and bodily demise. The phrase "who isn't halfway gone / fatherless and childless" heightens the tragedy of procreation, one in which the "who" is later and ghostily diminished in "know," for gnosis (knowledge) was a too-late protection for the AIDS tragedy. The poem's phrase "dazzled afternoon" heightens the male tragedy via the pregnant / protective sense of the vegetal / mater/female world. The "who" and "know" of that line are sonically lost in the word "widow."
The psalmic tone, "who won't praise green" is reminiscent of lines from Ecclesiastes and 1st Peter, "For all flesh is as grass," many of which Brahms used in his German Requiem, however in Powell's poem the purposeful lowercase adds both a lightness and deep humility. Referencing "a song of mayflies" as subtitle reinforces both profane and sacred notions since the mayfly lives a protracted six to seven years in the larval, aquatic stage, one in which it dwells in stream bottoms before rising to the surface as a winged insect for one day. It then mates—often in several hours—then dies: "dazzled afternoon." The use of brackets enclosing the title, along with a tight syllabic count of 21/22 and 25/24, often employing a series of monosyllabic stressed words struggling to rise as it were from the text, reinforces a notion of spirit separating from body.
In the third section of Seamus Heaney's "Clearances," a series of sonnets, the speaker recalls (while the priest is administering last rites to his mother) an earlier scene in which he and his mother are peeling potatoes "Gleaming in a bucket of clean water." The memory in the final sestet tempers the notion of death and allows the routine of peeling to become transcendent and more of a sacramental ritual than anything the priest might perform.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.9
The juxtaposition of the forceful and clumsy ("hammer and tongs at the prayers") with the more "fluent" and subtle (peeling potatoes together) is astounding because the fluency of "breath" and "knives" is both one of continuing and ending respectively, just as the potato, an underground root, is an image of death but also one of budding and regeneration. The more regular iambic pentameter of the penultimate line, suddenly broken with two trochees beginning the final line, reinforces a visual paradox with sound, for "her breath in mine" becomes one reversed from maternity: my breath in hers. "Never closer the whole rest of our lives" suddenly becomes imminently tragic, for little remains of her life. The sonoral aspect of the last line, as it struggles back towards iambic pentameter, implies a painful wishing to continue. Form and content use each other up completely.
In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov notes that distinguished literature often presents its material in a tripartite sequence: magic, story, lesson. He supports this notion with examples from Kafka, Proust, and Flaubert, among others. What he stresses, however, is the incantatory, magical opening that immediately entrances the reader. Nabokov's formula seems certainly applicable to the other arts, especially poetry, for what is magic without immediacy and also an inevitability of subject matter. Many poems exhibit immediacy, but very few present inevitability, a sort of "had-to-have-been-written quality." Dickinson's #465, "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died" and Mandelstam's #393, "Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me, / Their strength is crumbling but they never miss," certainly both exhibit this quality, and interestingly enough they both bear numbers instead of titles, as if their rush to existence precluded them.
Myth, another aspect of memorability, often arises from inevitable actions that rely on magic. One recalls Orpheus's descent into the underworld after his loss of Eurydice, and Pluto's dictum that the poet would be allowed to take his bride, but "as he led her up / From where Avernus sank into a valley, / He must not turn his head to look behind him."10 Of course he does and loses her to shadow, here in keeping with the dreamlike character of myth, for Joseph Campbell tells us that "Myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths." Orpheus's elegiac poems were supposedly so powerful that when he recited them the trees would bow down and the rocks move.
Or one might recall the story of Actaeon, also from Ovid's Metamorphosis, where the hunter glimpses Diana, naked, bathing. As he continues to stare, Diana sees and splashes him. The hunter begins running away with his hounds, but the water transforms him into a deer and he is devoured by his own dogs. The dream or nightmare often hinges on some divine wish or moral neglect, while the rite or ritual is forcefully present but its source is often mysterious and open-ended. We find this in Jean Valentine's powerful "Door in the Mountain," also the title of her New and Collected Poems.
Door in the Mountain
Never ran this hard through the valley
never ate so many stars
I was carrying a dead deer
tied onto my neck and shoulders
deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest
People are not wanting
to let me in
Door in the mountain
let me in11
("Door in the Mountain," from Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965–2003, © 2004 by Jean Valentine and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved.)
Valentine's wonderful myth seems to fulfill Nabokov's observation of magic, story, and lesson, the third aspect of which is wonderfully mysterious and open-ended. The first couplet begins in medias res and entrances the reader while opening up the domain of possibility through the repetition of "Never," a negative qualification that will find positive and mystical fulfillment at the poem's end. Story, or narrative, is introduced in the second couplet, though we're not completely sure why the speaker is carrying the deer, other than in some rite of compassion. The third couplet
deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest
recalls the totemic quality of various American Indian dances involving deer hides worn in thankfulness of the hunt, yet here the moral implication seems to be one in which rescue and mourning become a divine rite of returning to a sacred origin. I say "moral" because of the haunting fourth couplet:
People are not wanting
to let me in
The breaking of this code or conduct involves a divine or originary plea, one that seems to reach back to the Godhead and allows the voice, its urgency and inevitability, to travel a great distance to the page.
Door in the mountain
let me in
The poem with its plea to the mountain, an archetypal threshold of divinity, is imbued with a deep and unorthodox religious aspect, one fundamentally hopeful in its very impossibility: that humans might not destroy the sacred world from which they sprang. The poem is a metaphysical Yes swirling within a vulgar world of No.
Yet what role does beauty play? Certainly it is part of magic. Perhaps the fact that beauty is useless in a practical sense provides its necessity. It is purely aesthetic, without materiality or objective, such that it seems apart from this world. Often, however, beauty can be purposefully not beautiful-perhaps because its beauty lies in the future? This is certainly the case with Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending the Stairs, in which the beauty of the machine becomes that of the body, something earlier resisted in the Industrial Revolution. Nude Descending the Stairs is the plurality of machine-motion stilled, and in that stalling it is a future beauty dressing the human form.
Certainly then, originality is part of the memorable. A work of art should be new, fresh, but not merely for the sake of newness, where much art loses its magic. The original must rise naturally out of its subject and the artist's vision. This was equally true for Duchamp's Nude Descending the Stairs in his time as it is for Jasper Johns's Target with Four Faces in our time, a piece in which the hint of random violence and uncertainty today seems tantamount to the threat which the machine posed in Duchamp's era. These pieces offer impact and resonance; both seem necessary for the memorable. Impact can be fleeting in a work of art, but resonance is more difficult to attain. Both works are also "anxious & tentative," two terms which Peter Schjeldahl, a contemporary art critic, finds to be often synonymous with the memorable.
Originality then involves a high risk of the self: the more of the self risked, the greater the possibility of its power. Risking the self means following the work where it wants to go, rather than trying to impose some order, for this engenders surprise, or as Emerson would have it: mount to paradise by the ladder of surprise.
In "On Art," a piece written near the end of his life, Tolstoy argued that enduring art fulfilled three of several other qualities:
- That the new idea, the content of the work, should be of importance to all people.
- That this content should be expressed so clearly that people may understand it.
- That what incites the author to work at his production should be an inner need and not an external inducement.12
Tolstoy then continues to illustrate how art can fail through various and flawed combinations of these notions.
Thus among young artists heartfelt sincerity chiefly prevails, coupled with insignificance of content and more or less beauty of form. Among older artists, on the contrary, the importance of the content often predominates over beauty of form and sincerity. Among laborious artists beauty of form predominates over content and sincerity.13
He finally argues that the work, arising from some inner doubt, "should create a new and clear impression of reality" in poetry and the other arts. Perhaps what we should ask, however, is how many of them are new and clear?
There are certain crises of our age that must be revealed, revisioned in a new dialect just as Duchamp revisioned the Industrial Era. In Ross Bleckner's series of paintings, Architecture of the Sky, (1990–93), points of light are abscessed such that they resemble stars pouring from a constellation or the scintillate lights of a chandelier, but there is something odd in each canvas, as if an opaque shadow resided in each wrought point of light. In the catalogue, we later find that Bleckner based the patterns on Kaposi syndrome, a type of skin sarcoma found in AIDS patients.
—Magic, story, lesson, and beauty tempered by a new sublime. Is it still possible? Risk of the self pushing toward veiled truths. Impact and resonance. In Jorie Graham's "The Swarm," the speaker (presumably in Italy) tries to capture the sound of vesper bells on a telephone so that a lover across the ocean might hear them. The title, taken from near the poem's end, echoes The Aeneid (and the diasporic founding of Rome) through a technological swarm of beauty: church bells, their possibility and impossibility as information being sent through the transatlantic cable.
—the plastic cooling now—this tiny geometric swarm of
openings sending to you
no parts of me you've touched, no places where you've
Here, transmitters of the sacred-church bells-are profoundly transposed yet survive as testament to a sublime in which the boundlessness and impossibility of an act makes it all the more "totally present to thought."15 Here are the poem's first five stanzas.
I wanted you to listen to the bells,
holding the phone out the one small window
to where I thought
the ringing was—
Vespers scavenging the evening air,
headset fisted against the huge dissolving
where I stare at the tiny holes in the receiver's transatlantic
to see evening-light and then churchbells
send their regrets, slithering, in—
in there a white flame charged with duplication—
I had you try to listen, bending down into the mouthpiece
to whisper, hard,
can you hear them (two petals fall and then the is wholly
changed) (yes) (and then another yes like a vertebrate
yes yes yes yes16
Language is made new and ravenous through its subject matter and how it is verbalized: "scavenging, slithering, charged," etc. "Vespers" scavenge "the evening air," while beauty is precariously transformed, revisioned, and made possible through a kind of technological swarm and diaspora of broken-down then recoded information. A new, troubling image of the Godhead is vested in the seeming, futile effort to salvage it: "headset fisted against the huge dissolving" until the affirmation triumphs over technology—the first feeble "yes," then a series of them "yes yes yes yes" until the tentatives link and evolve, and the sound not only survives the chaos of ocean, but engenders a new species as the vertebrates enchain. Passion survives reason, technology distorting sound, our lives: "the white flame charged with duplication—." The vision of the work forces us to change our own vision, or as Rilke suggests at the end of his "Archaic Torso of Apollo," "You must change your life."
Memorable works of art seem to choose us; we do not choose them.
Mark Irwin is the author of six collections of poetry; the last three include White City (BOA, 2000), Bright Hunger (BOA, 2004), and Tall If (New Issues, 2008). Recognition for his work includes four Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, NEA, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
- Kafka, Franz. Diaries 1914-1923. Max Brod, trans. (New York: Shocken Books, 1976).
- Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Albert Hofstadter, trans. (New York: Random House, 1972).
- Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).
- Berg, Stephen and Mezey, Robert. Naked Poetry. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), p. 271.
- Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. J.C. Meredith, trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 135.
- Mu-Ch'I. Six Persimmons. tribe.net.
- Frost, Robert. Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Cox & Lathem. (New York: Henry Holt, 1967), p. 12.
- Powell, D.A. Tea. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
- Heaney, Seamus. The Haw Lantern. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), p. 29.
- Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Horace Gregory, trans. (New York: Viking Pres, 1958), p. 274.
- Valentine, Jean. Door in the Mountain: New & Collected Poems 1965-2003. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), p. 25.
- Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art? Aylmer Maude, trans. (New York: William Morrow, 1898), p. 54.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- Graham, Jorie. The Swarm. (New York: Ecco Press, 2000), p. 57.
- Kant, p. 135.
- Graham, p. 58.