“I THINK I WOULD RATHER BE/ A PAINTER”
The short essay “Poem and Prose-Poem: Ancient and Wild” needs no introduction. It simply consists of thoughts that have rattled around in my head for some time. But I would like to say something about my art work.
Over the years, I’ve published drawings in journals such as “Exquisite Corpse,” “Caliban,” “City Lights Review,” “Kayak,” “Boulevard,” and “Parnassus,” and have painted on and off for as long as I can remember, mostly in blue because I never knew how to handle color, and blue is my favorite. Then, some twenty years ago, my wife and I purchased a house on the side of a mountain in the western Catskills. Here, with more space than in a Manhattan apartment, I began to play around with all sorts of materials: colored inks and paper, acrylics and oils, chalks, pastels, pens and pencils, brushes, knives, various kitchen utensils, glue, sprays and lotions, bottles and bottles of Wite-out, “multi-media” with a vengeance, even though I’d read that much modern and contemporary art was in danger of disintegration because of the materials used in the making. Each morning when I went to my desk I half expected to find my paintings had fallen apart or crumbled to dust (I still half expect it). But on I went, covering sheets of paper seldom bigger than foolscap (aptly named, since, as Arthur C. Danto has wryly remarked, using paper undermines art’s seriousness). In the process, I discovered that my technique only worked on this scale, though when a slide of the painting was projected onto screen or wall the parts, magnified, still held together, kept their relative proportions, and there was more to look at, like a stained glass window. Briefly, they became louder and attained the importance of size (Danto also noted that making a painting large is “a condition for making it big,” so for an evanescent moment I made it big).
While I worked, time collapsed and paintings emerged, materializing before me. In a converted bedroom, on my writing desk among scraps of paper, drafts, notes, poems, books and the above mentioned means of production, sometimes I could complete more than one painting a day, and they piled up. Today, now that I can look back at them in sequence, I see how they have changed, (the two reproduced here are from earlier and later). I wonder how I learned to handle color, and think of the paintings in almost musical terms: rhythms, phrases, tones, modulation, “color”.
When a painting decided it was done, I found myself looking at something someone else had made, or as if I was a victim of trompe l’oeil, hoaxed. I’m not one for mysticism,* but it was as if the shapes, scenes, sounds and sensations that populated my slow wanderings in field and forest had sunk in, modulated into some sort of emotional equivalent; not so much a case of “the influence of natural objects” as a sort of metaphoric metabolic infusion, a kind of participation, perhaps what Mallarmé would have called “the effect the thing produced.” It was the opposite of those dreams in which you find yourself flying or playing the piano, but when you wake up you can neither fly nor play. But I flew, I played. I was even reminded, immodestly, of Caedmon, the illiterate farm laborer from Whitby in ancient Northumbria, who woke from dreams to sing of first things, frumsceaft, creation. Then I became blasé, assuming the process would go on for ever. But it didn’t. It stopped about the time we decided to sell the house and move back to the city full time. The paintings and slides were packed up and placed at the back of filing cabinets along with old tax records, journals and letter files. Until I thought Danny Lawless might care to look at a few slides, which he did, and asked me to write a few sentences to go with them, which I did.
I have shown my little paintings to just a few friends. One, a well-known art historian, found them “surprising.” I was unwilling to ask what she meant, or what she had expected, and she didn’t elaborate. Another found them “dark,” but I think she had her sun-glasses on. When I was younger, I knew quite a few artists but now, despite teaching at an art school, I no longer know any. In the 70s, however, I was friends with the wonderful painter John Wesley and his equally wonderful novelist wife, Hannah Green.** One summer we shared a cottage in Vence where, in addition to supplying me with paper and acrylics with which to immortalize the leaves of the fig tree that grew outside my door, Jack allowed me to hang out in his studio while he painted. Watching him work on “The Very Last Fish” from preliminary gridded cartoon to exciting completion, I thought how great it was to be an artist. When done, Jack signed the cartoon, dedicated and gave it to me. It hung in my city study until taken upstate to hang near my desk. It is now back in the city. I know what Frank O’Hara meant when he wrote: “I think I would rather be/a painter.”
I am not knocking the mystical, though I have only had two or three experiences of what I imagine might be called a mystical experience. One was whole rowing in CUBC trial eights which used to be held on the raised Bedford Level. Both boats raced in a straight line for about four miles above the Cambridgeshire fens, mist all around dissolving space, time melting into rhythmic repetition, creating the sensation of flying. The second experience occurred in the fragrant dark under the fan vaulting of King’s College Chapel, when, taking a break from crew (“I suppose someone has to pole a bit of wood up and down the river,” sneered my unathletic tutor, Dr. John Holloway) as a member of the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS), I sang in one of the eight five-part choirs that made up the full choir for Thomas Tallis’ ineffably gorgeous motet “Spem in alium.” In the echoic polyphony I felt transported. The only other “mystical” occasion I can recall was when I smoked marijuana for the first and last time, though time didn’t exist. Inhaling, I understood the meaning of life, and wrote it down, until my painting of blue fig leaves began to come off the wall at me, and when the wall itself started to buckle I panicked but could not escape. When I was finally in a condition to read what I had written it turned out to be gibberish.
The following poem is from my 2013 collection In Late Light:
“Where’s the past? It’s here or nowhere,”
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
“Awake I dream…”
–Hannah Green, The Dead of the House
We level out and all’s well. I reach for the “Times” stuffed into
the seat-pocket and flip through, stopping at an article on his
“blockbuster” retrospective at the Venice Biennale, with a photo
and him remarking of the huge sign “emblazoned” with JACK
WESLEY, “That is really something, isn’t it?” Where has he been?
Where have I been? I sleep, and then we are over the water at La Guardia.
I fold the paper to take with me, remembering where I put Jack’s cartoon
he gave me for The Very Last Fish, and am about to stand up when
I realize I’ve taken off my pants. Is this really happening? Waves
are lapping at my ankles and I’m with him and Hannah after our drive
south to visit one of her Columbia students near Livorno arriving late,
and the four of us dashing to the empty beach, shedding our clothes
and heading into the dark sea and Hannah, bountiful Hannah,
laughing over the surge, is letting go of Jack’s hand, then turning
to beckon me further in, but I’m holding back, afraid of what I cannot see,
what might be hidden under the waves that do not frighten her.
— In memoriam, Hannah Green
POEM AND PROSE-POEM: ANCIENT AND WILD
At Cambridge in the early ’60s, my poetry curriculum began in about the eighth and ended, for the most part, in the early nineteenth century. But when I was about seventeen, in high school I’d happened upon William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, along with the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Graves. Empson, soon to be joined by I. A. Richards, quickly became a favorite with his revelation of the resonant possibilities of the poem itself (parenthetically, Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself and The Seamless Web are two of my favorite books). As for Hardy, I absorbed everything I could find, poetry and fiction, while Graves’ poetry and prose transported me into a mythic wonderland, especially when supplemented by The Golden Bough (in college, for six pence I picked up James Frazer’s own inscribed copy of Lady Charlotte Guest’s The Mabinogion, and still treasure it). Even today I can remember the excitement I felt reading my extra-curricular discoveries. People have described this sensation in different ways. Matthew Arnold, for example, described it as a “vibration,” a shiver up the spine. I don’t claim to feel quite the same youthful sensation today, no matter how much enjoyment I experience. However, thinking about this essay and searching about for ways to describe that early excitement, I recalled an incident from some years ago when I was staying on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia. A friend had trained his high-powered binoculars on a large Spanish moss-bedizened live oak and waved me over. Pointing, he handed me his glasses. “There!” he whispered, and, after some excited searching–there indeed! I had never seen anything like it. My sight was flooded and filled with colors there’s no point in trying to portray. The richness, the vision took me over. A well-named nonpareil or painted bunting! A tiny bird that now seemed as big as my brain. I did not want to hand the glasses back. The bird solved my dilemma by flying off. If I didn’t want to sound overly dramatic, even clichéd, I’d say that for an instant it took my breath with it. I was transported.
True poetry exists in the engendering dark, giving and receiving light. The language of poetry resonates like whale-song. The words shimmer with their long journeys, their history. They echo their past at their core and around the edges where they flicker with suggestiveness, elusive linkages, which is why translation is only successful when equivalent echoes are created. Words live from their roots. Cut off, they are just implements. It is good for poets to know some etymology, some linguistics, the history of the language, and of the words they work with whose roots are deep in our ancient being, perhaps pre-alphabetical and even pre-linguistic, from a time using “a mode of thought based on diffuse multidimensional configurations,” (André Leroi-Gourhan), a way of consciousness using “things to think with” (Claude Lévi-Strauss). Words in poetry are living tissue. A word is, radically, breath, something spoken. It is muscular.
If true poetry lives in the dark, it also lives in space, in reverberative vacancy, so visual and auditory intelligence is called for. The page’s wholeness is air, its life emptiness. Here words can rise from the linear plane and inhabit whiteness, floating but not free, for there is no such thing as free verse any more than there is free movement; movement is constrained and shaped by structure. A poem’s “plot” is its trajectory. The precise knit, the corruscation of imagery, the flow and break of rhythm, the expectation and frustration, the music, the pulse and breath, these make up the poem’s connective tissue, its “seamless web”, its body, what it looks, feels and sounds like, its “idea”, (from the PIE root meaning “to look”), its “meaning”, (from OE “maenan”, “to tell, recite, speak”); these two words point to the shape, the breathing-speaking. There is nothing to “prove,” though there is everything to demonstrate. An idea in a poem is something “thoroughly incarnate,” in George Eliot’s phrase, its wisdom to be known and understood by looking deeply, the way of the “seer.” “I see” and “I understand” are synonymous, but “understand” is a mysterious word, (contrast another synonym, the latinate and abstract “comprehend.”) This deceptively simple word evokes almost a mythic memory, something like the central sacrificial Mithraic rite where an initiate stood under the grill and was drenched, bathed in the blood of the bull, transformed. The best way to understand the “meaning” of a poem is to stand under it, soak it in, be trans- and re-formed. Perhaps with this word we can see an example of what Ernst Cassirer in Language and Myth termed “the bond between linguistic and mytho-religious experience,” expressed in the fact that verbal structures appear as “mythical entities” where the word becomes “a sort of primary force.”
In today’s vernacular, the verb “to say” has become the verb “to go”—“I went [said], he went [said].” What Logan Pearsall Smith years ago in The English Language termed “the genius of the Language” has understood words as actions. Similarly, a word in a poem is an event (compare Hebrew “dabar”, which means both “word” and “event”). The “life-world” of a poem is never remote, felt “reflexively”. The expression of a truth is sensed as itself always a happening. The poem enacts its own being. It dances its own attitudes. It is Wallace Stevens’ “gaiety of language”. There is no paraphrasable prose content. The language of poetry is not transparent. You can’t see through it to a prose “meaning”, though prose is a keen tracker, albeit with a limp. There is just more body, more poem, (we talk of “the body” of a poem); there is more “spirit,” to use Kant’s word, more beauty “born of the spirit and born again,” where spirit is the invisible vitalizing force of breath, spiritus, mind-breath, continuous, animating and re-animated by another’s sensibility. In a way, adapting Beloit Mandelbrot’s concept of fractals , one might even talk of the “self-similarity” of poems, their “meaning” or “plastic beauty” being “a richness of possibility” (The Fractal Geometry of Nature). Or one might say that “meaning” in poetry occurs when ambiguities focus and balance dynamically so they strain their bonds and almost seem to be about to break free, like Michelangelo’s prisoners. Or one could also note the importance of the lyric’s musical component which, as Eugenio Montale said, can make a poem’s “meaning” slippery, hard earned, as one tries to reconcile the “literal meaning” and “the musical sense,” since the two can present different degrees of incompatibility (or compatibility), between “rational import,” which may be “evident,” and the verbal music which can be “secret, concealed, almost beyond our grasp” (afterword to Lucio Piccolo’s 1956 volume Canti barocchi). Poets have often stressed the importance of music and voice, the sound of a poem, and C.K. Williams even said that “meaning” arrives after the music has been established and, mysteriously, is contained in it (“On Whitman: The Music”). For me, music is of the essence. It is not some “amoral sonic pleasure,” a “system of cultivated sounds” which Wayne Koestenbaum in a 2016 New York Times Book Review claimed Adrienne Rich repudiated as part of “a patriarchal racket.” To my mind, “meaning” has to do with commitment to the sound and texture of sense, with “sense” encompassing the dimensions of feeling and thought. It has to do with the weaving of the text, the integrated inter-tissue, something sensuous, a fabric you can hold and wear, taste, smell, see (remember Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See, 1964), and think about; a tangible intangibility that is, a being (“the poem is a sort of animal,” said Ted Hughes) that expresses itself in kinds of congruity.
It could be that the search for “meaning” is the reason so many intelligent people find poetry “difficult”. Today, poetry may not be just the skilful re-expression of familiar or general truths or sentiments, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” But it is still available to anyone ready to engage it on its own terms, prepared to be prodded and enticed out of familiarity with self and world, even with language and poetry itself. All that is required is a sense of and taste for emotional and intellectual adventure, an openness to risk, even in those scary cases where “the reader is placed in an unprecedented condition of estrangement from his reading habits” (Pasolini on Zanzotto). An ability to tolerate or even enjoy uncertainty and ambiguity is helpful, perhaps essential, since a poem is almost always about something else, as befits its close relationship with riddle, one of “the roots of lyric” (Andrew Welch), a connection which Susan Brind Morrow claims goes back at least four thousand years to the poetic riddles of the Egyptian “Pyramid Texts.” Though Jan Huizinga in Homo Ludens doubts that contemporary civilization is capable of appreciating and nurturing poetry’s “special language,” he notes that this relationship with riddle “is never entirely lost,” tracing it back to the Greeks who “required the poet’s word to be dark,” to the Icelandic skalds who considered “too much clarity” to be “a technical fault,” and to the troubadours for whom “special merit was attributed to the trobarclus—the making of recondite poetry.” Riddle, after all, as Aristotle pointed out, is metaphor, which means we can never really know what something is because we are defining it by what it isn’t, knowing it by its connections, changing it, carrying it across, trans-lating, trans-porting it (Greek “metafora” signifies “carrying across”). So “meaning” is “process.” Perhaps Emily Dickinson’s riddling lines say it best: “And through a Riddle, at the last–/ Sagacity must go.”
Poetry is much older than prose. It does not create “isolated mental entities or abstractions” (Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato) to describe the world objectively and impersonally. It generates a physiology, a tangible thick world of imagistic continuity via sensual pleasure, making it difficult for us to separate ourselves, which was the reason Plato rejected it, insisting on abstract language to describe and explain experience, thus bringing us closer to pure “forms”, invisible ideals which artists degrade and distort. In addition, following Havelock, Walter J. Ong has pointed out how in oral-aural cultures words are more “celebration,” “events,” “happenings” and less “tools,” or “work.” This is still true of that poetry today which keeps close contact with the core. And this core seems to exist in a deep part of the brain that “thinks” for us, often in pictures; an inherent, intimate part of ourselves, yet acting as if removed and independent. Here “thinking” works apart from logic, not divorced but in a different register, where connections are made quickly, as perhaps they were at a time when quick and decisive action was a matter of life and death. It would be a mistake, however, to say there is no logic in poetry, no structure of reason, that it is all “emotion”. For not only is there an intense logic of image, there is the particularization in the way components interact, projecting an “argument” that “adds up,” that “makes sense.” This includes the sorting and discriminating of hints and echoes, the evaluation of leads, calling for something like detective skills, the way of riddle. So yes, there is logic, but at heart poetry is an exploratory even tentative “knowing” embedded in its syntactical dance, open to “unknowing”. It slips analytical philosophy’s focus on that problematic part of our being we call “reason.” Which does not make it unreasonable.
In oral cultures words are alive, part of a sentient world with human and other-than-human beings. They are “interactive,” “participatory,” as Dennis Tedlock and others have noted. Moreover, Native American oral narratives which used to be translated into prose as “stories” are now, following the lead of Tedlock and, in particular Dell Hymes, translated and presented as “poetry,” into formats showing their complex rhythmic, dramatic and patterned structures. In this vein, it is interesting to note that narratives in oral cultures are often thought of as living entities. Among certain Algonquian-speaking people, for instance, the story is a person accustomed to walking all over the world whose story cannot be told until it stops and makes camp. It does what you do. It is what you are. There is no separation between what is told, who tells it, and you the listener. Curiously, this is something like the way I feel when I read a good poem: non-separation. I am drawn into it as into myself, as if it were part of me. I have the sensation that the poem is flesh, something palpable I can touch, grasp, and as I do so I become different (I experience a similar reaction in front of a beautiful painting, when I am somehow the movements, the shapes; they are inside me, a reciprocal physical fit).
Plato somewhere describes the mysterious way in which, during the course of an ordinary day, we are attracted and moved by something we cannot explain or understand. The kind of poetry that means a great deal to me begins in and is rooted in the wonder of what Paul Falkowski calls our improbable, “almost magical” existence (Life’s Engines), when, for example, something we might have seen a thousand times catches the attention and this time holds it. A tree, horses in a field, a sparrow on the sidewalk, a word, phrase, or sentence, heard or read, or something we didn’t know we had remembered bubbles up, or what the photographer Robert Frank characterized as “some moment I couldn’t explain.” Then the poem spins out reverberating images with the appearance and feel of permanence; it embodies a sensation, making a moment mysterious and valuable in our throw-away culture. Even when a poem is complete, however, it can never tell us everything it knows. It is always holding something back, the way of the dream. And poetry today re-enchants (“re-sings”) the world in various ways, even when it reveals “the thingness of things,” a world in se, as in Zbigniew Herbert’s richly austere “The Pebble.” But surrealism has been the most powerful response to the materialistic 20th. Century. It has influenced all the arts with its central concept of “le merveilleux.” “Only the marvelous is beautiful,” wrote André Breton in 1924, and a couple of years later Louis Aragon added that it was “the eruption of contradiction within the real.” In such ways poetry breaks and builds, mixes “as if” and “it is”, as if becoming it is and vice versa. It rephrases boundaries. It is “oceanic thinking” (Jean Gebser’s phrase). It is “also” and “not only” whereas in “mental thinking” only “either-or” is valid. It is “as if” the world’s vibratory field calls at unpredictable moments and in unexpected places. I remember Magritte who, after a visit to a working-class Brussels beer-hall, wrote that he found the door-moldings “endowed with a mysterious life,” and he remained “a long time in contact with their reality.” And when William Carlos Williams saw a red wheelbarrow “outside the window of an old negro’s house on a backstreet” in Rutherford he wrote that the sight impressed him somehow “as about the most important and most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.” (Recently, I was glad to read that awe, wonder and beauty promote lower, healthier levels of cytokines, whose elevated levels are tied to depression). A poem lives in the numinous and, as Paul Ricoeur noted, becomes “the representation of a presence.” The ancient world, like some traditional tribal cultures still today, was filled with presence, continually remaking itself. Poetry tries to call things back from the positivistic brink, away from what Rilke termed “America,” where “empty, indifferent things pour over us.” The history of the west is the removal of mind or spirit from phenomena. A poem calls us back to the world’s beautiful strangeness, the uniqueness of everything and the way things are related, linked in a place at once us and not us.
Philip Larkin once famously said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think: ‘That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it?’ And that’s how you learn.” Of course, that’s true. But my experience of the marvelous in the form of a small bird led me to learn as much as I could about it, and that led me to an interest in ornithology. You can never know or learn too much, despite William Stafford’s remark that you can be “too well prepared for poetry.” I know what he means, but when you feel clogged up you can always go for a walk and keep an eye out for birds.
Which brings me to prose-poems, devious things. They want you to think they are four-sided, square, stable, when in fact they roll around picking up whatever sticks. Prose-poems are poetry packed into a box in order to trick you into thinking they are prose. That way they can get away with all sorts of things, “all sorts of fantastic details,” as Robert Bly noted. They are particularly adept at camouflage. They can be whatever they want, something like the quantum world that eludes scientists trying to agree on a single picture of what’s really going on. They are shape-shifters, they are the Trickster of literature, encompassing opposites. The form is inherently ironic. As you walk on it, it pulls away from under your feet. As you look, it slowly disappears before your eyes. But does not vanish. Far from it. It has a lot of fun playing with ideas and concepts such as “poetry”, “fiction”, “nonfiction” and so on. It is not afraid to mix styles and genres, be excessive and way out. For instance, what goes for normal in a prose-poem might be called bravura in a novel. The prose-poem can pretend to be linear but it has no need for what Nicholson Baker termed “the clanking boxcars of plot.” However, something that looks like prose but has no plot might be a bit scary. Something that has no pegs for readers to hang their progress from so they won’t get lost could be rather frightening. Which makes the prose-poem chuckle and smile, and toss out a few pieces of string for you to mark your passage. (When I write about the prose-poem I feel that I am writing one, that I have been hoodwinked by the prose-poem into writing a prose-poem). The prose-poem can seem continuous middle, whatever parts it may have interchangeable, simultaneous. It does not rely on a schema of beginning, middle, end. You can almost dive in anywhere. In a society devoted to winning and losing, the kind of prose-poem I love escapes the curse of success and failure by virtue of its insistent presence, its vital insouciance. Prose-poems are both warm companions and a lovely shape for alienation: alienation as companion, (I think of prose-poems as a kind of person). They are always turning corners, often on a whim, seldom arriving anywhere in ways to which we are accustomed, calling us over and keeping us off, a rich tease, witty, cheeky, unpredictable, crystalline but not transparent, a shimmering cabinet of wonders, and the objects on view are words, each a cabinet in itself, reflecting off each other, slipping on, over, into each other with what Michael Benedikt calls “visionary thrusts”.
I think that poetry retains an ancient way of “thinking” and “being”, and that prose-poetry is one of the few remaining wild places at a time when the world is being covered with people and concrete; where wilderness, which generates mythological thinking, has been cordoned off into national parks or made into playgrounds for ATVs, skiis, skidoos, recreational hunters and Bigfoot enthusiasts. I might think of poetry as a garden, dug, planted, tilled and tended yet full of out of the way places, surprising, coigns of vantage, kind of neolithic. I tend to think of the prose-poem as a place and time in which to live by one’s wits, relaxed but on the qui vive, gathering good stuff, tracking quarry, aurochs or angels, unafraid of failure, a bit rough and ready perhaps, sometimes irresponsible even, but rangy, relaxed, full of all sorts of things, kind of paleolithic.
The prose-poem is an ecumenical entity in itself. It is not, as Donald Hall once wrote, “a fashion,” a station on the journey to a “more varied and useful free verse.” Verse is welcome to take what it wants, but that won’t affect the prose-poem. The prose-poem may still not yet be fully appreciated, but it doesn’t care–Oh, it’s off again! It just thought of something else, something just struck it, something’s caught its attention. “Perhaps I am a post-modern ethnologist,” it thinks. “Mmm. ‘Beyond truth and immune to the judgment of performance.’ I may even be Anishinabe, it could happen,” he mutters, quoting Judy Tenuta. “Yes, ‘I could curse the monologue and praise the comic holotrope’. And what is my name? Nanabozho is it, Ma’ii or Iktomi or Laks? How about Pihneefich, Sinawavi, Wehixamukes or Kwakwadek? Who knows, and what’s in a name anyway? Who the hell cares?” It laughs a huge laugh and takes off anonymously for the horizon at a fair clip.
Brian Swann is the author of many books in a number of genres, from poetry and fiction to children’s books, translation, and edited books on/of Native American literature. In 2016 he published one book of prose, Dogs on the Roof (MadHat Press); and two books of poetry, St. Francis and the Flies (Autumn House); and Companions, Analogies (Sheep Meadow Press).