When I was a boy, in the 6th grade, yo-yo's were popular. At least half my classmates had them, and so the school held a yo-yo performance contest. It was won, perhaps unexpectedly, by a girl, whose name (I'm sure she wouldn't mind my using it here) was Beverly Smith. Beverly was a tall, 'dirty'-blonde girl, with some freckles, thin, and not particularly attractive, but pretty smart, and savvy. I don't know why she was good at yo-yo-ing, but she was the best. Maybe, like everything else, it was about practice.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The Wind-Up & The Pitch
What I remember about the yo-yo challenge, was that you had to be able to keep your yo-yo spinning fast enough, and do the various tricks quickly enough, so that when the trick was done, you still had enough "spin" (or torque) (or enough wax on your loop) to jerk the string and make the yo-yo return to your hand. Long tricks, such as the "rock the cradle" (in which the yo-yo swung like a pendulum through a triangle of string you made with your hands), tended to take long enough that it "exhausted" the spin of the yo-yo.
Think of the duration of the "spin" of the yo-yo as a spring: You wound it up by "throwing" the yo-yo out to the end of its string with as much torque as you could muster, hoping that it would last long enough to maintain enough spin to climb back up the string to your hand.
Lest anyone think that I still play with yo-yo's, please pay attention.
Rhetorical suspension is like a winding-up of tension. Any text has a beginning, middle and end, unless it is of such short duration, say, of one or two words, that its effect is immediate (i.e., without duration). What happens with any sentence is the setting up of expectation, through the grammatical structure, which is then "answered" or completed by the syntactical conclusion of the sentence. The same is roughly true of paragraphs, which may contain any number of sentences. The outline of any sequence of sentences has the same incremental quality as words in an individual sentence.
The degree of this tension is dependent upon the degree of expectation, or frustration of completion, which the sentence contains. One of the tools of rhetoric is the ability to create sentences, or sequences of sentences, which command our attention, by using suspense and anticipation to queue our apprehension to a "loaded" fulfillment. The payoff of any effective sentence, or paragraph may not, however, always lead from build-up to increased anticipation to sublimation. The order may be reversed, or tilted in any number of ways. In most common English sentences, the "order" of grammar is most often not "reversed"--as is typical, for instance, in German, or in Latin, where the verb is frequently placed at the end of a sentence.
This quality is one which is associated historically with prose, rather than poetry, although there have been times in which this was not true. Rhetorically graceful sentences, or effective, even ornate prose, is generally at odds with what we normally think of as a graceful, or musically inspiring lines of verse. Measured speech, which emphasizes accuracy and the progression of thought, is usually not "prosodic" in character, in that it doesn't answer to the metrical forms that we think of as lyrical (or musical).
Ezra Pound said, in despair of the inadequate locutions of mediocre poets with traditional form(s), that "poetry should be at least as well written as prose." What I take that to mean, is that poetry should not sacrifice the potential rhetorical power of sentences to fulfill the demands of a poetic line. In Pound's early poetry, you can sense the struggle he's having with the "poetic" conventions of late Victorian and early Edwardian poetic cliches--attempting to free his line, in order to make powerfully effective poetic statements.
Marianne Moore, from her earliest published works, shows herself to be a master of the prosaic line. She clearly admired eloquent and complex rhetorical flourishes, and sought to create a poetry which did not, as Pound had suggested, yield any rhetorical power to the narrow demands of a traditional form. This led, I now think, to her choice to create new eccentric (though fixed) forms.
She also used this skill to create free verse constructions of the greatest delicacy and precision. One very short and simple one is--
My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave,
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat--
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth--
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.
Moore's work is a veritable textbook of effective strategic rhetorical devices, designed and executed to seduce, constrain, delay, surprise, mystify and frequently delight the sense. Nothing is ever simple in Moore's poems, there are always at least three ways of interpreting a given assertion, depending upon how you respond to them.
I like to think of this poem--as others of Moore's--as trick-poems. Trivial, you say? Maybe. As a metaphor for the rhetorical tension created early in the poem, which is then brought to a satisfying conclusion, it is like a wound-up spring, or like a performance, a sleight-of-hand. In Moore's universe, we might suppose that interesting people ("superior people") justify our appreciation of them because of the quality of their sensibilities; except that, in this instance, it is not the poet herself who is speaking, but her father. What is a daughter's estimation of the value of her Father's sensibility? Again, nothing is simple.
This is a poem superficially about the idea of tolerance. The idealization of conduct presented as "superior" is doubtless meant to objectify a certain class of behaviors, but with considerable ambiguity. These qualities are expressed with wit and concision: They are self-reliant, they enjoy solitude, and are capable of delight in speech. We can deduce, however, that the poet's position with respect to both her Father's preferences, and those of such "superior" people is somewhat disdainful, at best. If "long visits" are unwelcome, then restraint may be a virtue. Prickly minds might see in a daughter's restrained attitude towards her father, a strained impatience with the strictures of obeisance. Might she herself feel that she was nothing more than a "visitor" or a "guest" in her own Father's house?
The one dominant image the reader takes from the poem is that cat with a mouse in its mouth, its tail dangling "like a shoelace." Are we not to take this indelible image as a metaphor for the morbid relationship between daughter and father? The ambiguity contained with the quotation is placed in perfect opposition "Nor was he insincere...." By objectifying the qualities of sensibility which she regards with a mixture of admiration and muted contempt, she is able to celebrate the rhetoric of a form even while undercutting its message. The poem embodies the restraint which the quotation offers; it is an exercise in tolerance that preserves the individuality of the speaker. Its brevity is a bitter acknowledgment.
Old Beverly Smith could show the boys a thing or two about coordination, and balance, and challenge the prevailing sexist mode that relegated her to the quiet restraint of not competing. Moore's impressive skill at navigating and outmaneuvering the prevailing sexual modes of her time--inherited from a staid Victorian culture of male dominance and presumption--was one she would put to good use, in poems such as "Marriage." When patience turns to impatience, even in restraint, it may grow gnarled and ornate.