Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another Valentine to Monsieur Détaché

che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita 1
I walked out, before
"Break of day"
And saw
Four cabins in the hay. 
Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves--four--
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay. 
The waters
At the ramp
Running away. 
I have touched briefly before on Zukofsky's principle of the objectification of experience, of how our attempts to represent a feeling or a picture of event inevitably get bound up with the confusion(s) inherent in the senses of words (language) we all carry in our heads--the common consensus among contributors (participants) about what language may be expected to convey notwithstanding, what words may mean (suggest), and how they may function in the discrete context of poetic composition. All the kinds of mediations between the impulse, the act, the artifact and the effect, are active in any Zukofsky poem: i.e., LZ is always striving to anticipate confusion and consolidate it within the echoing ricochets of its possible interpretations. Post-Modern criticism recognizes such problems inherent in the poetic act, including the implication of its own involvement in the process of apprehension. The possible range of responses to any poem is at least as complicated, and separately integrated, as its original inception. 
Subjects and objects in poems are no more and no less reliably specific than they are in dreams or film or sound. Cabins and mason-jars and sluices are conveniences in the sense that they stand as inert presences (or in the inertia of time and space)--apart from what we may feel or think about them. Signifiers' reality is thus neither more, nor less transitory than our linguistic understanding of them. Their three-dimensionality--if I may speak of it this way--is an expression of the intersection between two projections--the writer's version, and the reader's version. Both share in the experience through the controlled play of the unfolding of the words (sentences) in time and space--a kind of holographic ghost of our mutual presumptions. Thus the poem's existence points to a third thing: Our experience of the reading of the poem as a mental event, different for each person, has integrity as such.  
In the poem--the first in the sequence entitled Anew [1935-1944]--the speaker awakens before dawn ("Break of day") and "sees" "four cabins in the hay." Not in hay, but in the hay. The definite article places the cabins within a context of unreality within which objects may exist without complete fidelity to their characteristics or fundamental nature(s). Cabins may sit in hay; may be sited among hay fields. In what sense are these cabins really cabins? Are they four units in a seaside motel, or toy-houses in a weedy back yard? Their essences as actual things--which the poet may actually have seen, or just imagined, or assigned an arbitrary descriptive to--but their actual existence is secondary to their function within the argument the poem sets up. They, like the words which describe them, and the small, correct (and arbitrary) stanza which contains them, are conveniences whose purpose is subordinate to their function as images (or linguistic place-holders) of things. This is the level of address that one often finds in a LZ poem: Things as they are are not givens, but presences redefined, beyond the general presumption of our familiar recognition of them.  
And yet the objects themselves stubbornly resist specific misapprehension. Cabins are still cabins (brown wood, rustic structures of modest size), and hay is still hay (yellow or dull tan, dried, brittle, lightweight, slanting this way and that in Summer). They could be cabins in a Monet painting, wreathed in the dull, grey light of pre-dawn, shadowless, numinous, still. 
If it's a bay, it's a bay by water, seen through sealed glasses resting on a window-sill, a bit more domestic than you'd expect in a motel room, but perhaps not. Not seen through the glasses (or jars), which are filled with preserves, but definitely through the gauzy sash to the yard on the bay. Is the yard "on the bay" or does it merely front it? We're looking at the bay. 
Beyond the interior of the room in which the window is placed, there is water, running away. But water doesn't "run away," it flows. It goes down, through rivulets in terrain or along courses laid for it. 
If poems are objects--and not merely the formal setting of human utterance--their significance acquires a sort of sculptural presence (immanence), as things in themselves. In philosophical terms, transformative or transcendent qualities in all matter (the universe), may be interpreted as a mystical acceptance of the world as a completed phenomena, which is all-consuming and all-inclusive. In other words, all our acts and efforts to place the material world on a different, or subservient level to so-called higher purposes are illusions, or systems of limited applicability (vanity). Art is one way of applying the objectifying brain, through symbolic representation (language), to make new things out of the known. But these new things have integrity of their own, in the same way that objects in nature do. Indeed, words themselves, which precede and largely predate our use and understanding of their qualities, also possess this immanence in and of themselves--and this use and understanding is, at least to some small, measurable degree, different for every person in the world. This uniqueness may seem invisible, until we begin to explore the sense of words beyond their popular definition as derived from our so-called common usage of them. But the use of words in poems (art) carries another dimension of meaning, beyond the accepted, social context within which ordinary communication occurs. 
Language in poems stretches meaning and presumption beyond the accepted parameters of defined speech and grammar. The oscillations and distortions of our separate and joint senses of words and phrases, are to a significant degree what make poetry poetry, and not mere speech, or mere raised utterance. Zukofsky's degree of abstraction is located precariously at the margins of the social contract of meaning.              
For Zukofsky, objects in a poem function(ed) on two levels: As familiar place-holders for the shared experience of common understanding (and delight), and as collections of talismans in a personal code. Objects sufficient in themselves had been implied by/in Imagism, but an expanded conception of them in poetic composition occurs throughout the work of the Objectivists.
This leads into a discussion of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and how his thought influences Zukofsky. Spinoza's heretical ideas about the pantheistic, indivisible nature of the material universe as the particular immanence of God--the duality of the One and the All--is adopted by LZ in the division he emphasizes through the titling of his poetic works: A: A Poem of a Life, and All: The Collected Short Poems. The key distinction signaled here, between theOne (the singularity and control associated with a unique life's experience, associations and expression of that life), and the All (the divisible particularities of a common, shared experience of things in the world). These ideas are crucially significant to a consideration of the use of dialectical materialism in Marxian economics and political theory. For Zukofsky, the value and meaning of private experience lay in its unique aesthetic character, but for a canonical socialist, the part the individual plays in society should be considered as subservient to a greater good. The indefinite article A defines the limit of the one, while the definite article nominates the noun sub specie aeternitatis. The irony of the human position, as being both in nature, and capable of imagining a discrete example of external nature (extension) is a riddle one often finds expressed directly or indirectly in Zukofsky's verse.
The quotation which precedes the poem proper is from Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto IV--
E quelli a me: «L’onrata nominanza
che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
grazïa acquista in ciel che sì li avanza».

translated as-- 
And he to me: "The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them."

I'm not a Dante scholar, but the gloss on this passage would refer, I think, to the sacred word in the heavens which guides and blesses those "who honourest every art and science".   
Natural phenomena--the quotidian experience of the daily life--may be construed as evidence of the immanence of the sacred in material things. Our apprehension of the magic of ordinary things, relationships and qualities may, or may not, persuade us of the infinite, indivisible or unified nature of the universe. Is our fate therefore ironic, despairing, arbitrary, or inspiring, heroic and transcendent? 
As an enumeration of the signs (or symbols) of a material experience, the poem is a riddle about the relationship of language to our conception of the world. If the experience is/was real, to the poet, its significance to the reader will be a proof of the existence and value of that "third thing"--our shared mental experience of reading the poem, and the objects and events it describes will survive the ruthless effacements of time and change. Language--poetry--provides an ideal medium within which to negotiate the differences in our individual experience, and in our experience of language, in all its particularities.             
1 Trans.:  That sounds of them above there in thy life.


J said...

from Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto IV--

That'd be Limbo, where the virtuous pagans, greek philosophers, et al reside. Or Elysian fields in other readings, right. So Zuk. (you think he knew italiano? no se pienso) sort of inserts himself next to Aristotle and Co.

Interesting, given his love for...VI Lenin and the Bolsheviki, who don't seem quite so...magnanimous. Indeed, one could argue that VI's tactics were not so different than say those of Brutus (ie of Et tu Brute fame). And according to Dante Brutus resides in a rather nasty district of Hell. (tho granted this insta-assessment may be a bit too content-oriented at the expense of ..Form for the poetic gang. 'Scuzi)

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Shere said...

Hmmm; looks like you've gone to Google Translate for your gloss. "L'onrata nominanza" refers not to a sacred word in the heavens but to four poets Dante met in Limbo.

In the previous three lines (Inferno, IV, 73-75) Dante had asked Virgil, his guide, who these shades were. A better gloss of your quotation might be:

He answered me: "Their honored eminence
Resounds from them [even] in your own lifetime:
Grace got in heaven — and, yes, it furthers them."

Ten lines further we find out who they are: Homer, Horace, Ovid, and… Lucan? Why Lucan?