Saturday, June 25, 2011

after you move your eye

A hallway runs through this flat from the front door to the room at the back, and as I was walking down that hallway yesterday I thought of the word telescope in my last post and gradually I felt worried. It seemed important that I should turn on the computer and change telescope to magnifying glass straight away, otherwise people would think that I didn't know what I was talking about, I thought.

But reading the post I saw that it was not telescope I had written but telescoping, and so magnifying glass would not be able to replace it, because the word I needed, which would have been magnifying-glassing, did not exist, and even if I had claimed my right to domination over my own small bit of language and invented the word I wanted, the sentence as a whole would have become obscured by this distracting showboat of a phrase, doing me no good and doing it no good either, and not helping anyone who tried to make sense out of me, in fact ruining everything. I had been reading several books of poetry by the American poet Louise Glück, and for a 2006 collection named Averno I remembered that she had written a poem called Telescope, in which the poem's "you" takes a telescope away from their eye and feels a vertiginous unreality. "There is a moment after you move your eye away / when you forget where you are / because you've been living, it seems, / somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky," she writes.

The telescope has given you a sense of closeness, she says, but that closeness is false; you do not live in the night sky with the planetary bodies; you are not "participating in their stillness, their immensity" as you imagined. Gradually the you realises that its sense of identification and unity was false, and as it achieves its quietude the poet concludes like this: "You see again how far away / each thing is from every other thing."

But as long as you had the telescope to your eye you had an equivalent of metaphor: disparate objects had been persuaded to unite, or to exist in the same place. We cannot live in metaphor, we are apart, every poor metaphor is fighting against the separating powers of the universe, all microscopic pinpoints snubbing one another and rolling around like grapes on a tray. Two of the writers I've read recently have gone out of their way to say that metaphor is important to poetry. One was Jorge Luis Borges and the other was Susan Sontag, and their examples were so similar that I wondered if Sontag, whose speech (she was accepting the Jerusalem Prize) was published decades after the Argentinian died, had found the idea in the same place that I did, the 1967-8 Norton lectures that came out with Borges' photograph on the cover over the title, This Craft of Verse.

But perhaps that is impossible, because the lectures were left in a recorded form for "more than thirty years" said Calin-André Mihailescu, the man who arranged the publication, "the tapes gathering dust in the quiet ever-after of a library vault" and so Verse didn't come out until 2002, one year after Sontag received her prize. The similarity seemed so great while I was reading it, however, that I wanted to believe she had somehow known, a message getting through, maybe a verbal report, but why would anyone bother to hold onto that nugget of information for thirty years, "Borges said that metaphor was essential to poetry, and he used such and such specific examples"? Or was she there in the audience, her mind clinging to this part of the lecture for decades before she found a use for it?

"One difference [between poetry and prose] lies in the role of metaphor," she wrote, "which, I would argue, is necessary to poetry. Indeed, in my view, it is the task -- one of the tasks -- of the poet, to invent metaphors." Borges says more or less the same thing but he comes to it out of a discussion of Leopoldo Lugones an Argentine poet who composed hundreds of new metaphors for writers to use when they referred to the moon.

Sontag also refers to the moon. I would like to bring out examples to prove my point about their similarity but both books were due back at the library about a week ago.

It's probably a coincidence and I don't want to use that as an excuse to dismiss it. What a strange thing. (But I know from past experiences that if I borrowed the two books again and tried to find the similarities I would be left wondering what I thought I had seen -- "These aren't alike; this is tenuous.")

Emily Dickinson's metaphors conduct the shrinking and growing effect that I was trying to get at with my telescoping and magnifying glass. Now I try to approach the idea of violence in her work, my impression that her metaphors, which jam objects together in startling ways, are violent towards their material, sadistic even, and I tell myself that if she could speak to the Abbey in He parts Himself -- like Leaves she would say, "You want to be strong stone because you are an abbey, but I will maintain a grip on you and with my powers I will turn you into quaintest Floss." She is sadistic with whimsy, I decided. What can I compare that to? A burning giraffe entered my head. Surrealism! What is an Abbey made of Floss? It is as weird as "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," Lautréamont's phrase that was borrowed with honours by André Breton, the strangeness of that, and the threat inherent in those ridiculous objects, the sewing machine with its stabbing needles, and the dissection table, which is, after all, a table where things are dissected. Surrealist whimsy is not kind, it loves to startle you with its viciousness, it takes a man and replaces his face with an apple, or it teases the Mona Lisa with a moustache, it dares you to underestimate it and call it childish, ludicrous, and silly, and so does Emily Dickinson, who sometimes seems to be a girl of about six exclaiming, "How happy is the little stone / That rambles in the road alone." In his introduction to her Complete Works, Thomas H. Johnson tells me that her famous correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson "was never convinced that she wrote poetry. As he phrased his opinion to a friend, her verses were 'remarkable, though odd … too delicate -- not strong enough to publish.'"


  1. Nice segue from your "telescope" to Glück's to metaphor. Do you think the idea that metaphor is essential to poetry so original that Sontag couldn't have thought of it herself?

    But then, is it "necessary" or "essential" to poetry? Methinks it is common to poetry, and the obvious way to achieve the narrowing focus or intensity that one expects of poetry, but is it "necessary" or the defining characteristic as "necessary" seems to imply? I want to define poetry by what it IS, I think, rather than what makes it what it is ... ?? And here I'll stop for fear I'm starting to ramble!

  2. No, but (and I didn't really explain this, I realise now) it wasn't just that she came up with the same idea, but she phrased it in almost the same way, and the examples she used were almost the same examples. Or so it struck me. I think if I went back and read it now I'd wonder what I thought I was seeing. (It's happened before. I read two books close to one another and say to myself, "This point and that point, they're so close!" Then I read the books again and wonder what I was on. The connection dissolves.)

    I don't think I'd say that anything was essential to poetry. Laying down rules like that is an invitation for people to overturn them. It reminds me too much of that online kerfuffle a few months ago when Roger Ebert said in his blog that video games could never be art. The moment I saw that, I began thinking of ways in which they could be art. (The two obvious flaws in his argument: one, gaming is so young that it should be impossible to lay down any intelligent judgement on it yet -- and a cinema person like Ebert ought to know this; does he think the early years of cinema foresaw The Godfather or Uncle Boonmee? -- and two, he was approaching it from a filmic and literary point of view, he thought that games couldn't tell a story. But narrative is not the only art. Isn't architecture also an art? And don't games have architecture? Of course they do. And don't they have qualities particular to them that could be raised to the level of art? Of course. Why not?)

  3. Yes, I know what you mean. I call that synchronicities though I use the term more broadly to cover connections that may be across the time continuum, but quite often they are not. You start to wonder if there's something in the ether or, as you imply, something in your mind at the time, some way of seeing perhaps suggested by the first "thing" that makes you "see"a connection that later isn't there. It's part of what makes reading so interesting isn't it.

    As for poetry rules. Agree entirely which is what you probably knew. Is Ebert becoming a grumpy old man? I find it disillusioning when old people come out with things like that. It sounds like they've stopped thinking.

  4. Interesting, and evidence of the mind's compulsive habit of linking things and working out logical connections, or what seem to be logical connections and perhaps aren't. "I came across this idea in Book X and now here's this other person writing about a similar idea, and oh look the ideas match here and here, and Book X mentioned the moon and so does this new person. They must have read Book X too, like me!" The literary equivalent of seeing lightning set a tree alight and concluding that there must be super-people up there in the clouds with a fire of their own, like my fire. How do they throw this fire? Well they must have fiery spears, because that's how I'd do it." Logic!

    I've done a fresh search for 'ebert, games' and it looks as if he's modified his position. "I still believe this, but I should never have said so," he writes, and he admits that, "I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games. This is inarguable."(

    So the grumpy old man ungrumped a bit. That sort of thing depresses me too, especially when it's someone I like or respect. Dammit, I think: why did you have to go and disarrange my carefully-formed mental picture of you by saying that?

    But I suppose I should thank them for making my life more complicated in such a harmless way.

  5. That's the way to look at it - the Ebert thing I mean.

    As for connections, yes it is interesting how we see connections primarily because of an often coincidental sequence. Still, that's not to say that some good thoughts and ideas don't result. It's just that like most thinking you need to be conscious of the influences on that thinking and test them out - which is what you are doing when you say you go back later and don't always still see the connections!

  6. The thing that dazzles me is, how out of control it all is, this process of thinking and making connections, or how out of control it should be, seeing that we do so much of it -- flooding ourselves, just automatic flooding and flooding -- and how do we deal with it all, making ideas and filtering them into little mental drawers or bins (this is useful, this isn't, this is something I can write on the internet, this one will have repercussions if I ever let anyone know about it, this coincidence is legitimate, this one needs testing, etc, etc) -- we don't do it perfectly, but how do we do it even as well as we do it?

  7. I have no idea ... and other people's connections can be truly mystifying while one's own of course make perfect sense (at least initially!)

  8. Those connections always seem so right and so nice while they last, and then later I look at them and wonder what happened to that bridge I'd built between A and B. Weird stranger that I was.