Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Wind-Up & The Pitch

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. 

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.   


Ed Baker said...

WOW yo-yos and elementary school yard contests..

my best friend Bo Clinton won a black super-duper yo-yo with gold lettering on it

in one of them contests let's see..

Ludlow Elementary School must have been about 1952 or so..

Jerome (Bo) was two years older than us and thus bigger an a better athelete... etc

due to being out-of school for two terms because one morning
he went into his bathroom and found his father ganging from the shower head!

that sure was a beaut that Yo-Yo

it had the "goog double string and

wow Bo could walk-the dog then go into rock-the-cradle, then do around-the-world BEFORE having to "reload" the yo

so it would yo again..

Betty Funk was "our" girl-best Yo-Yo er

also she had the bigest tiddies than the other sixth grade girls and the teasing made her "tough"
and the etcs

a rep from the Yo_yo company used to come a round and do demonstrations and open his attache case and hand out new shiny yo-yos

he used to linger afterwards over by metal jungle gym

with Betty

long after school was out!

anyway....never buy a cheap yo-yo..

or opt for the simple

go with (if you have the "balls" to)

;the divergent way of thinking

;the non-linear

go with Moore AND Betty Funk into The Logic of Essence

Hey the yo-yo s THE BEST were DUNCANs

Kirby Olson said...

Nice piece, and glad you left the yo-yos of lang-po out of this one. What did she mean by this poem? With Moore, you can't just read, you have to study the poem. Her poems aren't really readable in the sense that Hemingway for instance is readable.

Moore didn't know her own father, I think it says in the biography (the biography is the best place to start to try to understand her work because the lit-crit is mostly quite tendentious, and bent on conscripting Moore in the feminist cause -- for the most part).

So is the Father in the poem -- God?

And is the residence -- earth?

In this case the line about the father isn't biographical or autobiographical at all, but is a quote from someone named Miss A.M. Homans (notes in Complete Poems, p. 276).

And the last line about the inn is found in a biography of Edmund Burke.

Tracking down, and then trying to sort out the quotes from the missing context of the passages, and then trying to figure out what stance she has toward the speakers can take you most of a month, even if you have nothing else to do.

They are like very hard crossword puzzles.

But usually there is something quite brilliant at the end that she's thinking about -- much more intellectual than Pound, I think, in that she's a conservative Republican in the line of Lincoln to W., but she's also a very hard-core Presbyterian (her brother was a naval pastor) -- "Thy father's house has many mansions" is I think the eventual phrase she's pointing towards in this one. In the silence is a lot that's being left unsaid -- there's a lot about NOT going to see the big sights -- in order to see something ELSE, that's going on.

"Marriage" is a truly major poem. It could take you two years just to get the foundational quotes and the context sorted out. I doubt if anyone on earth has ever actually read the poem. Moore's poems are tremendous work, and work ethic has passed out of favor in reading in favor of screeching about political affiliation. It's all turned into football, with three yards of dust and some blood.

I prefer the trickier tricks here that you indicate.

Curtis Faville said...

"Crossword puzzles" is one way of thinking about them. They are, in one sense, highly complex designs, but those designs--applied a priori and then executed to appear "inevitable"--are not games. Every performance may have ground-rules, but the content is not pre-ordained.

Her free verse constructions are elegant follies of rhetoric, in which the power of sentences is exploited to the hilt. Take 'England' for instance--unevenly numbered stanzas--or 'When I Buy Pictures'. These don't even look like "poems" in the usual sense. They're like someone speaking to you at tea. Elevated speech.

I think they're marvelous.

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, how do you rank her next to the other modernists? WCW, Pound, TS. of E., Cummings, etc.

I put her on top, with WCW next, then Pound, then Eliot.

I just can't stand Cummings. He thought hwas funny, and I guess he was when I was 15.

I'd give Moore 4 stars, and then 3 to Williams, 2.5 to Pound, 2.25 to Eliot (the Cats bit is quite ok), and I'd give a negative 7 to cummings, who just makes me sick.

Reznikoff is a 3.

1 = dismiss
2 = not too bad
3 = very good
4 = can't stop thinking about it

Curtis Faville said...


I'm not into ranking, but who was it said "whoever is at the top, this person belongs there too"? Which is a nice way of not comparing.

What's most exciting about Moore is the strength and ingenuity of her language, her indelible images, her classical balance and courageous (but subtly expressed) dignity. She could have eccentric opinions, but that eccentricity was the source of much of the interest of her work. And of course she cultivated that in herself.

What she shares with Cummings and Eliot and Pound is audacity, and great intelligence. They don't teach that in workshops--heaven forbid!--

I've always been surprised at the scant attention paid to her work, compared to the other High Moderns. I think her big structures have more in common with Language Poetry, for instance, than what you find in Pound and Eliot and Williams.

No one has so far thought of that, except me.


Ed Baker said...

well MM

what DID she advise (poets to do)?

write abou imaginary gardens with real frogs in them"

check out her via Voices and Visions series...

and the others there-in..

in the WCW one there is AG at his rabbinical best!, film! where the imaginary becomes the real!

a matter (see Shakespeare's famous "What's the matter, me Lord?"

black and white A PLAY!

re-read Hamlet AND PLAY WITH THE WORDS/ make your own reality skip rope

ans Marianne Moore and others do everytime I read/write them..

all rankings belong in some fucking nationalized 'one true religion' military entity.. forever marching of to battle!

all "volunteer army" crap
dropping GM (Government Motors) bombs again

Kirby Olson said...

There's a lively MM community but they're mostly trying to conscript her for various social causes.

There are a couple of good older books -- bonnie Costello's is good. My favorite book is the biography which is excellent, though wordy.

She is probably just starting to gain critical steam now -- surely she's getting more attention than say Cummings, but not as much as Pound or Williams. But then her Complete Poems have only about 100 poems in it.

And each one requires colossal knowledge, and research. She'd spend months of research on the poems. I doubt if very many of her critics have put the time into the poems that she herself put.

Her papers are in Philadelphia at a tiny library, and are very elegantly arranged (she was trained as a librarian). Also, her actual studio is in that library/museum, kept intact as it was in NYC at the time of her death.

The library is a pretty little thing on a tiny street near Rittenhouse Square. What is the name of it? Rorschach comes to mind -- Rosencrantz. Rosenbach, maybe. Rosenbach Museum and Library?

I've done lots of research in there. A nice place to work.

eddie watkins said...

It is the Rosenbach M & L

It's on a residential street within walking distance of my house. I've visited it many times. As a museum it would be great if only the docents weren't constantly breathing down your neck. I prefer looking at things at my own pace.

It serves as proof that all urban areas aren't drug infested war zones as Kirby contends.