Tuesday, June 10, 2008

an apple is what you do with it


While writing a review of Matthea Harvey's Modern Life, and pondering (again) the penchant of some contemporary poets for using words as playthings without respect for their meaning(s)--implied, contextual, inflected, literal or metaphorical--I noticed the most recent New Yorker article on Pound's influence ("The Pound Error") which included this:

"Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ ” was the formula of the movement that Pound invented, in 1912: Imagism. In the Imagist model, the writer is a sculptor. Technique consists of chipping away everything superfluous in order to reveal the essential form within. “It took you ninety-seven words to do it,” Pound is reported to have remarked to a young literary aspirant who had handed him a new poem. “I find it could have been managed in fifty-six."

The seed of the trouble lies in what most people find the least problematic aspect of the Imagist aesthetic: the insistence on "the perfect word," l.e. mot juste. This seems a promise to get language up to the level of experience: artifice and verbiage are shorn away, and words point directly to the objects they name.

Language becomes transparent; we experience the world itself. "When words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish," Pound wrote in 1915. This is a correspondence theory of language with a vengeance. We might doubt the promise by noting that in ordinary speech we repeat, retract, contradict, embellish, and digress continually in order to make our meaning more precise. No one likes to be required to answer a question yes or no, because things are never that simple. This is not because individual words are too weak; it’s because they are too powerful. They can mean too many things. [Italics mine] So we add more words, and embed our clauses in more clauses, in order to mute language, modify it, and reduce it to the modesty of our intentions. President Clinton was right: "is" does have many meanings, and we need to be allowed to explain the particular one we have in mind."

As both editor and poet, Pound was especially aware of the power of a word. It reminds me that the expression "it's only words" (used, astoundingly, by Hillary Clinton—-another Clinton!—-in reference to Obama's speeches) is, or ought to be, anathema to any poet (or writer) claiming to be the real thing, yet we have had decades of poets who write in just that way—-with no respect for, or love of, words. (Curiously, Ron Silliman refers to my review of Harvey as "dissing" her book. In fact, I've probably paid closer attention to her actual poems than any other reviewer. Other reviewers talk mainly about the "project" she has engaged in, not the actual writing.)

Meanwhile, thanks to Ron Silliman's amazing list of links (where I now go for my poetry news fix, along with Poetry Daily News), I came across this, a discussion of how scientists are working on understanding how the brain decodes meaning:

"The meaning of an apple, for instance, is represented in brain areas responsible for tasting, for smelling, for chewing. An apple is what you do with it."

Pound would have been pleased by such a discovery, I think: the direct correspondance between word meaning and experience.

22 comments:

Joseph Hutchison said...

You're right on target with this post, and with your review as well. Much of the avant-garde (post avant? conceptual writing?) project is at heart just that: an approach that treats poetry as some kind of verbal erector set. And of course, as any kid who ever had an erector set can tell you, the real fun lies in making monsters—bizarre structures with fantastic appendages, and who cares if they can stand up on their own?

What I do like about Harvey's work is her manic/maniacal humor. But Brenda Shaughnessy, for example, strikes similar tones in Human Dark with Sugar with a coherence and fundamental seriousness that give her humor a much greater emotional power. Same thing with a poet like Bill Knott, whose poems can inspire smiles and existential anxiety at the same time.

belz said...

Dear Joan-
Your review of Matthea Harvey's new book and comments here on Pound's imagism have me thinking. I agree with you that reduction of language to *nothing but* a plaything is a waste of time—the reader's and poet's both. But what I don't understand, especially about your review of Harvey, is how you can ignore the fact that language is, in fact, a construction. It is also a kind of living thing with fidelity to experience, but it is a construction. It's both. I guess what I'm saying is that, although it's handy to present these as mutually exclusive ideas, at least in terms of your argument, the fact is that there are two things going on in language: it's like an erector set, and it's vibrant and organic and has meaning.

My approach to writing book reviews (which is a hack business anyway, let's face it) is to relay my immediate experience of the book in the context of other books I've read or been asked to review. For me, that approach yielded a very positive review of Matthea Harvey's book; it stood out as an enjoyable book full of little surprises and interesting pictures. Certainly not the cliche post-confessional narrative style poetry that still seems to dominate; and not really NY School either. It's the softer, more relatable post-avant stuff that i like to read.

I mean, I like to read it. That's all.

Joan Houlihan said...

I also liked Harvey's humor. And, there are lots of moments in her work, the moments just don't add up, even through the span of one poem. Your erector set analogy is a good one. Thanks, Joseph, for your comments.

Joan Houlihan said...

"Your review of Matthea Harvey's new book and comments here on Pound's imagism have me thinking. I agree with you that reduction of language to *nothing but* a plaything is a waste of time—the reader's and poet's both. But what I don't understand, especially about your review of Harvey, is how you can ignore the fact that language is, in fact, a construction. It is also a kind of living thing with fidelity to experience, but it is a construction. It's both. I guess what I'm saying is that, although it's handy to present these as mutually exclusive ideas, at least in terms of your argument, the fact is that there are two things going on in language: it's like an erector set, and it's vibrant and organic and has meaning."

My whole point was that it's both and that Harvey has given less attention to the "vibrant and organic and has meaning" part, the word meanings, pacing, syntactical variation and other aspects of writing that would transform it from merely playing with surfaces of language into the realm of writing that goes deeper. Respect for how words mean and work in a line is essential for a poem to do more than give off random sparks, to connect with something, and this respect (or know-how) seems to be lacking.

My approach to writing book reviews (which is a hack business anyway, let's face it)

Speak for yourself. ;-)

is to relay my immediate experience of the book in the context of other books I've read or been asked to review. For me, that approach yielded a very positive review of Matthea Harvey's book; it stood out as an enjoyable book full of little surprises and interesting pictures.

I think it's an enjoyable book full of little suprises and interesting pictures too. So what? It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Seems to me it should be more than that. Is this really all we have?


Certainly not the cliche post-confessional narrative style poetry that still seems to dominate; and not really NY School either.

Nope. It's not those. But I'm less concerned about what the style or school is than the writing.

It's the softer, more relatable post-avant stuff that i like to read.

I mean, I like to read it. That's all.

That's ok, no need to apologize. You're obviously not alone. I am. ;-)
Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

When Thomas Jefferson was disconsolate about the many edits the committee made to his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin tried to console him with the story of the fellow who was opening a hat shop.

The original sign for the shop the fellow proposed had many words: “"John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money" above a picture of a hat. His friends noted that many words were redundant, unnecessary, etc. So the fellow ended up with a sign that had his name "John Thompson" and the picture of a hat.

John B-R said...

""When words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish," Pound wrote in 1915."

If only ...

But it's not a bad aim ...

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

anathEma :-)

joshua said...

Dear Joan,

Doesn't your approval of the idea that meaning is determined by use ("an apple is what you do with it") conflict with the idea that poets need to have, as you say in one of your responses below, "respect for how words mean and work in a line?" The latter would seem to suggest that the meaning of a word in a poem should be determined by its traditional uses and/or its immediate context; the former, on the other hand, presents the poet with no such guidelines. We can do a lot of things with an apple. Are only some of them permissible in poems?

Yours,
JA

Anonymous said...

Dear Joan, I definitely don't think you're alone (as you suggest in one comment) in your take on this book. I thought your review was extremely insightful in diagnosing the failures of the book. I had the same reaction--saw it nominated, saw the buzz, wanted to read some great new poems, got the book and was enormously disappointed. The Robo-boy concept is way too cutesy and the future/terror poems never move beyond device. They mostly feel silly or boring or both. Your review was helpful in understanding why.

Ian Randall Wilson said...

For a minute, Joan, I thought you had crossed over. But I realized it was only a step, a small step on your part, in acknowledging that there are actually other poetries out there besides the ones you allow for. I've always seen you as narrow and rigid in your definition of what's okay for poetry and what isn't. So your review of Harvey's book and your post here, and the fact that you think Silliman has something to say to you, gives me some hope -- for you.

Why does poetry have to be one thing? Why can't the play of language be enough? Why does anything have to mean? Why can't we be "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"? Poetry, after all, is not a math problem. If I were looking for the efficiencies in my life that some of the commenters here seem to think poetry is supposed to produce ("[the] reduction of language to *nothing but* a plaything is a waste of time—the reader's and poet's both") I certainly wouldn't read poetry. I'd read an instruction manual for assembling my smoker. I'd assemble the smoker. I'd cook something.

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Joshua, not sure I understand your question. I like the idea of meaning being determined by use, yes, it's an interesting way to view meaning. Not sure if "approval" is the right word--I don't really know much about it, only read the link I provided here. And yes, I also think poets need to respect how words mean and work in a line. I don't see the conflict. I didn't intend to conflate the idea of word meaning in a poem with the brain studies on how we comprehend word meanings, I just wanted to add another point of view, of passing interest, on word meaning.

Joan Houlihan said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. Glad to hear I'm not alone. ;-)

Joan

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Gary,

Yes--thanks (twice)! I finally got it.

Joan

Joan Houlihan said...

Ian, You thought I crossed over, but from what to what? My review of Harvey's book was not positive--did you think it was? I think Silliman does a great job of compiling up-to-the-minute poetry news links. I think the "play of language" is only one aspect of a poem and it's not enough. I expect more. If it's enough for you, great. Have fun. I have never confused a poem with a math problem, nor have I expected a poem to immediately yield only one meaning. Finally, if you think Keats wrote play-of-language poetry or anything close to it, you're truly confused. You've conflated his statement on the creative process with his actual poetry. In any case, I don't have the impression that you're addressing me or anything I've actually said here or elsewhere, but instead you seem to be talking to a shadow-Joan of your own creation. Sorry, my shadow is not boxing tonight.

joshua said...

Hi Joan,

Let me see if I can be clearer.

If the meaning of a word is determined by its use, then there's nothing stopping me from using the word apple in a way that has nothing to do with the things that we usually (that is to say, normatively) identify as apples. "An apple is what you do with it" could mean an apple is something you eat -- or it could mean that it's something you put on top of somebody else's head for target practice -- or it could be the name of somebody's celebrity child (and is, I think).

My point, I guess, is that there is a difference between saying that the meaning of a word is determined by its use tout court , and that the meaning of a word is determined by how we, in a given cultural moment, happen to use it (semantically, grammatically, or otherwise).

If we argue the former, then there would be no way to evaluate the respect that the poet is supposed to show toward the meaning of words; she could use them however she wanted. I think you are actually arguing the latter; the respect you want poets to show to words has to do with acknowledging their usual meanings, in other words, to put limits on how words may be used.

Yours,
JA

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Joshua,

Thanks for the clarification.

You said: "If the meaning of a word is determined by its use, then there's nothing stopping me from using the word apple in a way that has nothing to do with the things that we usually (that is to say, normatively) identify as apples. "An apple is what you do with it" could mean an apple is something you eat -- or it could mean that it's something you put on top of somebody else's head for target practice -- or it could be the name of somebody's celebrity child (and is, I think)."

--Ok. But "an apple is what you do with it" is not the same statement as: "an apple is what you might do with it" and in the context of that article, I believe the statement has to do with the physical sensations an apple elicits by the usual usage that can in turn be measured in the brain. The discovery is not about how many things one can do with an apple, but how word meaning might be linked in the brain to the things one usually does with an apple (see, taste, smell, bite, etc.). Now, if you are arguing that our usual meaning of apple is too constraining, and that the experiment should have factored in all those brains that link "apple" to "on top of head' and "celebrity child" and so forth, and that the word "apple" should have its meaning expanded by all the possible uses of it, I might agree, except that we would never get through the construction of a dictionary, let alone an ordinary communication. Even in the world of a poem, where meaning may be (re)constructed, the reader is (hopefully) tutored in the way to apprehend any (re)constructed meaning (inc. neologisms) by the way the word is used in the world of the poem.

You said: "My point, I guess, is that there is a difference between saying that the meaning of a word is determined by its use tout court, and that the meaning of a word is determined by how we, in a given cultural moment, happen to use it (semantically, grammatically, or otherwise)."

--Sure. I agree with this. I believe the terms prescriptive and descriptive are meant to make this distinction, and grammarians, linguists and others who create dictionaries often quarrel over where the weight should fall in both defining words and including new words.

You said: "If we argue the former, then there would be no way to evaluate the respect that the poet is supposed to show toward the meaning of words; she could use them however she wanted."

--That's true.


You said: "I think you are actually arguing the latter; the respect you want poets to show to words has to do with acknowledging their usual meanings, in other words, to put limits on how words may be used."

--That's also true. But again, I don't see a conflict, since the "use" is also the "usual" use. Of course, in poetry, we may want to push against that "usual" use, to make a word something new by means of its environment (syntax, line, juxtaposition, etc.). I think a poem should use words, not be used by them, so yes, limits are necessary. Otherwise, why not use "melon" to mean "horse"?

Best,
Joan

Joseph Hutchison said...

Joshua is being far too coy in fielding an argument in which he evidently doesn't believe. After all, he begins by trying to "be clearer"—that is, trying to use words more precisely. This can only be because words have meanings. Not utterly fixed meanings, of course; a glance at almost any page of the OED will demonstrate the fluidity of language over time.

But the fact is that writers are as bound to language as painters or musicians are to the materials of their art. (Just imagine a composer writing a Suite for Five Pinches of Goose Down: the result might be performance art, but it will not be music.) In a recent post on his Harriet blog, Linh Dinh notes that "one may begin writing a poem in complete freedom, that is, in complete randomness, but one should end the exasperating process in abject submission." If a poem is going to communicate ideas and emotions to a reader, then it must submit to the currently available meanings of words.

Of course, meanings of words can be changed ad hoc by the way the poet uses them in a given poem: puns, contexts that highlight earlier meanings no longer in common use, dialects real and invented (Derek Walcott and Cathy Park Hong come to mind), nonce words and neologisms (Shakespeare is credited with some 2,000 of them), even nonsense words à la Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll are always possible. But in the end the poet must finally submit to all his or her choices and hope that those choices make the poem's common and uncommon words alike intelligible, or at least entertainingly suggestive, to the reader.

Ian Randall Wilson said...

Ah, I see I was wrong. You're as rigid as ever. But you willfully misread my comment. A wonderful irony from someone who is so concerned with meaning in poetry!

joshua said...

Joan:

I understand now -- you aren't actually arguing for meaning as determined by use -- you're arguing for meaning as determined by habit (and, possibly, if the article is any indication, as determined in some way by remembered sensations in the brain). I just think it's worth noting that there is an important difference, however slight, between these positions; one is theoretical, the other empirical. If you want to know what a word means at a given time, you can look at how people habitually use it, or look at their brain scans. If you want to know how it came to have that meaning, or how it came to have new meanings, then you need to look somewhere else -- to how the word was originally used unusually (phew).

Joseph:

I wasn't trying to be coy; I actually do believe that the meaning of words is determined by their use; if, as you say, the meanings of words are not fixed, then you believe this, too. If you don't, where do meanings come from? Are words signs of natural facts, as Emerson argued? Is it simply a matter of what's in the dictionary at the time? Where do those meanings come from? It's a mistake to think that the argument for meaning as use is the same as the argument that words do not have meanings. It's just an argument in favor of the notion that words do not have stable meanings. Where Joan and I disagree, I think, and where we may disagree as well, is in the level of stability we expect from the meanings of the words in our poems.

Thanks to you both.

Yours,
JA

Joan Houlihan said...

Ian,

I don't think I misread your comment, but I can't be sure, because I don't know exactly what you are trying to say. Let me know what you intended to say that I misunderstood. Did you wish to say anything other than that you disagree with something you imagine I think? That's the problem with ignoring meaning--things get unclear quickly, assumptions are made, and accusations fly. So--I'm listening. What's your point of view on the role of meaning in a poem?

Joan

Ian Randall Wilson said...

HOW TO RESPOND TO A CRITIC

I might rest easy if you will say it can be more than one thing only

Joan Houlihan said...

"I might rest easy if you will say it can be more than one thing only."

Not to be Clinton-esque, but what is "it"?