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Archive for March, 2006

W.B. Yeats

The poor fellow looks a little gormless in most of the photos I’ve
found of him, but that’s by no means a judgement of character!

from A General Introduction for my Work

This
essay is personal compared to Pound’s objective essay outlining his
fundemental principles for anyone writing poetry. Nonetheless, there
are moments which I thought worth relaying to you.

A
poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its
tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he
never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is
always phantasmagoria…He is part of his own phantasmagoria.

Yeats
steeped himself in classical literature and was of the belief that
literature should show the mark of the traditions that came before it.
He was also a spiritual man and pursude various branches of mysticism
throughout his life. This inevitable affected his writing and the
following quote is an example of hoe he uses mystical influence to
express his beliefs about the tradition of literature:

‘When
mind is lost in the light of the Self,’ says the Prashna Upanishad, ‘it
dreams no more; still in the body it is lost in happiness.’ ‘A wise man
seek in Self,’ says the Chandogya Upanishad, ‘those that are alive and
those that are dead and gets what the world cannot give.’ The world
knows nothing because it has made nothing, we know everything because
we have made everything.

and

I am a crowd. I am a lonely man. I am nothing.

The
second quote is particularly resonant of mysticism. I recall a Sufi
saying: ‘One should be alone in the crowd.’ It means to live a life of
devotion to God among society, not in seclusion. Similarly, Yeats says
that one should write new poetry in the context of literary tradition,
not by introducing “originality” that is not connected to anything that
has come before.

…romantic literature…had one
quality I admired and admire: they were not separated or individual
men; they spoke or tried to speak out of a people to a people; behind
them stretched the generations.

I hated and
still hate with an every drowing hatred the literature of the point of
view. I wanted…to get back to Homer…I wanted to cry and all men cried,
to laugh as all men laughed…

Style is almost unconscious. I know what I have tred to do, little what I have done.

This
quote makes me hark back to my previous argument about criticism – how
reliable is it that we take the words of critics for granted when even
the author himself did not know exactly what it was that he had
written? Sometimes critics seem to me to be more like psychoanalysts
than literary analysts, deducing what the authors subconscious wrote rather than what the author was conscious of writing. Just a thought.

I
tried to make the language of poetry coincide with that of passionate,
normal speech. I wanted to write in whatever language comes most
naturally when we soliloquise, as I do all day long, upon the events of
our own lives or of any life where we can see ourselves for the
moment…It was a long time before I had made a language to my liking.

With regards to the importance of form:

…all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.

‘Tragedy
must be a joy to the man who dies.’ …neither scholars nor the populace
have sung or read anything generation after generation because of its
pain. The maid of honour whose tragedy they sing must be lifted out of
history with timeless pattern…imagination must dance, must be carried
befond feeling into the aboriginal ice.

When
I speak blank verse and analyse my feelings, I stand at a moment of
history when instinct, its traditional songs and dances, its general
agreement, is of the past. I have been cast up out of the whale’s belly
though I still remember the sound and sway that came from beyond its
ribs…The contrapuntal structure of the verse combines the past and
present.

What moves me and my hearer is a
vivid speech that had no laws except that it must not exorcise the
ghostly voice. I am awake and asleep, at my moment of revelation,
self-possessed in self-surrender; there is no rhyme, no echo of the
beaten drum, the dancing foot, that would overset my balance.

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Arms

Writing about web page http://dura.cell.free.fr/home/swf/arms12.swf

A cool animation. Check it out.

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Strong Words

I’ve started to read Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry
for my Practice of Poetry exam, and I’m enjoying it. It instructs
wisely, confirms and questions much of what I believe/think about
poetry and the practice of writing it, and I’ve decided to blog up
extracts of the essays that particularly speak to me.

So, I’ll begin with Ezra Pound.
from A Retrospect

In
this essay, Pound lays down his fundemental ‘rules’ for writing poetry.
His definitive metaphor for the practice of poetry is music:

Don’t
imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or
that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much
effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the
art of music.

This sums up the undercurrent of this
essay which is that, at the end of the day, writing a poem is hard work
and should not be taken lightly; everyone knows that to play music like
a virtuoso one must practice hard, learn the musical directions so that
one can play the music at the right pace, at the right dynamic, and
create suitable musical mood. To write well requires the same amount of
dedication and rehearsal:

Let the neophyte know
assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and
polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint
and all the minutiae of his craft.

His three main principles for writing the poetry of vers libre are outlined at the beginning of the essay:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

On criticism:

Criticism
is not a circumscription or a set of prohibitions. It provides fixed
points of departure. It may startle a dull reader into alertness.

I
do not agree with a tradition of criticism that defines the
interpretation of a particular poem, that sets in stone the poem’s
meaning and nuances, that seems to be an ‘effort to explain away
ambiguity, to reduce the poem to statement like any other’ (SW, 12).
However, the purpose of criticism as outlined by Pound above justifies
its necessity for me. He also warns: ‘Pay no attention to the criticism
of men who have never themselves written a notable work.’ How many of
the critics we read and whose words we take for granted have ever
written a significant work which is not the criticism of someone else’s
work?

I was struck by his wonderfully succinct description of what ‘an image’ is:

An
‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in
an instant of time…It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’
instantaneously which gives the sens of sudden liberation; that sense
of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden
growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of
art.

These are the statements of his that I though particularly resonant:

Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.

What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow.

Use either no ornament or good ornament.

When
Shakespeare talk of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents
something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of
his nothing that one can call description; he presents.

The scientist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great scientist until he had discovered something. He begins by learning what has been discovered already. He goes from this point onward.

A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure.

That
part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginitive eye of the
reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that
which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the
orginal.

This is why I’m finding translating
Persian poetry hard. A lot of the beauty is in the way the words sound,
and also the word play which can hardly ever be translated with the
same nuances.

If you are using a symmetrical form,
don’t put in what you want to say and then fill up the remaining
vacuums with slush…Don’t mess up the perception of one sense by trying
to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of
begin too lazy to find the exact word.

I
believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that
if a man use “symbols” he must so use them that their symbolic function
does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of a passage,
is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom,
for instance, a hawk is a hawk.

I think
there is a “fluid” and well as a “solid” content, that some poems may
have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase.

It is tremendously important that great poetry be written, it makes not a jot of difference who writes it.

No
good poetry is ever written in a manner 20 years old, for to write in
such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from book,
convention and cliche, and not from life.

Yeats’ influence on poetry has been to make it a ‘speech without inversions’.

20th
century poetry…will, I think, move against poppycock, it will be harder
and saner…’nearer the bone’…its force will lie in its truth, its
interpretive power…At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct,
free from emotional slither.

And finally a little comic relief:

I
believe in everyone writing poetry who wants to; most do. I believe in
every man knowing enough music to play ‘God bless our home’ on the
harmonium, but I do not believe in every man giving concerts and
printing his sin.

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Idealism and honesty

And so it is with these idealists – it is always the case.
Up to the last they adorn the man with peacock-feathers, to the last
they hold to the good, and, although they have a forboding of the
reverse of the medal, they put away their thoughts, and will shut out
the reality with both hands, until in the end the idealised man mocks
and laughs at them and shows himself as her really is.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment

Honesty,
especially with yourself as well as others, is harder to live by than
most think. Don’t put away your forboding thoughts, deal with them as
they arrive. Otherwise you’ll end up like this:

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