NO GRAMMAR, NO FURNITURE!

Frequent commenter jamessal sent me this poem, which I liked so much I thought I’d pass it along; it’s from Mark Ford‘s book Soft Sift (if you click “Features” you get the texts of a bunch of the poems):

Jack Rabbit
Will I ever catch up, or will I be easily
Caught first? It was assumed I’d branch out
With the heretics, commit a few crimes, then
Suffer the decreed punishment: instead, I paused
Near the knoll where the vociferous and well-
Groomed gather to consider their options. I yearned
To wade through buttercups and clover towards
The sinister squadron of an embattled
Bourgeoisie. Vivid mottoes – One Size Fits
Nearly All!, No Grammar, No Furniture!, Le Temps
Viendra!
– still adorn the half-built walls. Prodigal
Sons and daughters stream forth in search
Of business, clutching their coats, bewildered by doubts
And strange aches; a thin layer of soot powders the buildings
They pass, and the cracked bark of the peeling plane-trees.
*
So I reckoned to get quicker, leaner, braver, more
Self-effacing; I’d pick my way between
The mounds of junk cast off by warring factions, cleverly
Disguised and idly humming. I swam mid-stream
With the freshwater boys, and lounged on rocks
At evening. Meanwhile the air slowly thickened
With intrigue. Blueprints and memoranda
Began to circulate like the seasons, melting
The obdurate, blossoming where least expected:
We were to police ourselves, produce
Solemn recommendations, fall on our own
Swords. Wishes were transfigured into parables
And omens. Neither threats nor Chinese burns
Demolished my cloudy strategies, though a tow-haired
Bullyboy still slouches at the edge of sight, killing time.

Comments

  1. Oh, that’s a beautiful poem!
    Incidentally, in recompense for my snarky comment about the “Horseshoe” Mandelstam translation, I’ve given it a try here. I found myself repeating the other translators often, though not always. (I’m also working on a few pieces from the Moscow Notebooks–like Leningrad

  2. Hmm, it cut me off. What I meant to say was that I found it hard going because of the combination of frustrated lyricism and a personal, conversational style in the Moscow poems.

  3. Nice, Slawk. Some powerful images. These poems don’t come together for me into a whole picture like some of the others, at least on first reading, but the conversational tone comes through, and they were quite moving.

  4. But let’s forget Mandelstam for a sec. Let’s talk about Mark Ford.
    I like Mark Ford. I like this poem a lot. I like: I swam mid-stream
    With the freshwater boys, and lounged on rocks
    At evening.

  5. Can’t say it touched many nerves other than those commanding the finger to mouth. “I yearned to wade through buttercups and clover towards the sinister squadron of an embattled Bourgeosie”, too much perpetual juvenelia for my taste.

  6. jamessal says:

    To call “I yearned to wade through buttercups and clover towards the sinister squadron of an embattled Bourgeosie” juvenilia is to mistake the tone, which is perfect: no more nostalgic than ironic, yet no more detached then enthusiastic. I think he walks a very fine line masterly.

  7. jamessal says:

    if you click “Features” you get the texts of a bunch of the poems
    Aargh! I’ve been typing them all out from scratch!
    Here’s two more. The first appeared in a recent TLS; the second is the first of Soft Sift.

    Hourglass
    Early August, and the chestnuts
    Are wilting – their splayed leaves
    Tattered and blotched, their shadows, not understood, speaking
    A forgotten tongue…tell, tell us where, their drugged sap
    Must be sighing, tell us where our distress
    Ends, where
    Are the victories? Each pinched, each
    Aching hour we grow sadder
    And stranger: a rift
    In the billowing cloud cover, this cage
    Of rain, soft grayish
    Swarms of nameless insects circling, alighting,
    Settling, sustaining themselves,
    A sandy, pockmarked
    Wormcast, the deft sideways hop
    And jab of a predatory
    Speckled starling – are the shreds and fraying
    Filaments
    An irresolute wind
    Is teasing
    Apart, winnowing
    And dispersing, strand
    By strand by strand.
    ****
    “See,” I grieved, “his mind
    That so filtered
    And sifted nature it made transparent her weirdest secrets, now lies
    A broken prisoner of night. His neck
    Droops, as if bowed with chains, and he sees nothing
    But the cold, gaping ground.” At this, fixing me
    With her gimlet eyes, the strange woman answered: “But surely you
    Are one of those who once lapped at my breast, and were raised
    To tough-minded
    Maturity on what I fed you? I armed you as well, yet you threw away
    My weapons, not realizing
    They would have kept you safe. Now
    Do you recognize me? …You don’t speak. Is it shame
    Or stupefaction that keeps you silent? How I wish
    It were shame!” Then, when she saw
    My tongue and lips had utterly frozen, she approached
    And laid a soothing hand
    On my torso: “We must wait”, she murmured, “for this fit
    To pass. He’ll know me soon enough, and then
    Himself. For the moment let me wipe
    Away some of the worries obscuring, like thick storm clouds,
    His troubled sight.” So speaking, she folded her dress
    Into a pleat, and reached out, and with it dried my streaming eyes.
    ****
    Through
    The valley ran a brook
    In full spate. I descended, and passed a middle-aged woman kneeling
    At its edge. She was washing potatoes. When I travel, I travel
    Light, with just a few things in my knapsack, no sword
    Hangs from my belt. And with my shaven head
    I look like a priest, but I’m not, for I’m powdered
    All over, from crown to foot, with the dust
    Of the world…I reached home
    Just as the leaves
    Were turning, and my brothers and sisters
    Gathered round, excitedly; but all I saw were wrinkles, dewlaps,
    White eyebrows, and watery eyes. My older brother
    Pressed into my hand a small purse, and said,
    “Open it”. Inside were a few strands of white hair
    Preserved in a tiny glass case as relics
    Of our mother. Nothing was the same, and it seemed
    A miracle we were ourselves
    Still alive. While I balanced
    The frail, intertwined hairs in the palm
    Of my hand, I kept imagining my tears
    Dissolving them, their melting as an early autumn frost
    Melts in morning rain.

    Looping the Loop
    Anything can be forgotten, become regular
    As newspapers hurled in a spinning arc to land
    With a thump on the porch where Grandma sits
    And knits, her hound dog yawning at her feet.
    And other strangled details will emerge and prove
    Suddenly potent to confound the wary-footed, and even
    The assembled members of the panel; in turn
    Each pundit speaks, yanks from the hat an angry rabbit who
    flops
    In spurts around the circular paths of crazy paving.
    No pressing need to watch them but you do.
    *
    Dirty fingernails in August, and just
    The amount of lightning threatened; superb
    Courtiers sweep through the various precincts
    Fingering each other’s beads in the jagged dusk.
    I myself went and left like a moron, but heard
    The rumours nevertheless — meanwhile the wind
    Pounds this shack with wilful abandon, then inquires,
    As it eases, just exactly how many spliffs there were
    Stashed that night in the cicada-coloured
    Pencil case tucked in the side pocket of her satchel.
    *
    Harsh truths indeed! I act the part of my own
    Nemesis, polite, dazed, addicted to adversity,
    Frequently drunk. Overhead the wires hum
    Obscure ultimatums, mutterings that threaten
    To aggravate forever these ordinary feelings, and inflict
    Upon the world quantities of crazily-worded postcards
    Sent off on impulse from decaying seaside towns. For I still
    Love the tang of brine, the old women hurtling on
    motorbikes
    Through swirling banks of fog, any who loiter
    Resentfully about the war memorial on summer afternoons.
    *
    Eventually one hears the cuckoo’s call, while friends
    Recline in armchairs. Let’s off then, backwards through
    The fish-eye lens, bone by bone, clean shirts
    Soon streaked and torn. Some fought like lovers
    Under the bluish lights that swayed so weirdly
    On their stanchions of pale, unpainted metal; how
    Suddenly the team began to perform as if a stranger
    Watched and cared, blindly probing through the endless rain
    For openings, reeling back aghast, bitterly dispersed
    One dank October, the sediment settling as best it might.
    *
    Afloat on the flood, indifferent to the cries
    And the silence, I imprison your wandering hand:
    In it lurk anecdote and polemic entwined, scars
    Faint as a plate’s, the luck of the stars …
    Yet the affect hardly emerges, peers forth
    Like a strayed mole through a cliff-crevice
    On the unfamiliar scene; though I have leapt and held
    And carried, grimaced sourly at the brimming heavens,
    A few feints and the incident spirals
    Beyond reach, turns turtle in dreams displaced before
    morning.

  8. jamessal says:

    Here’s Helen Vendler in the LRB analyzing the last stanza of a poem from Soft Sift:

    Debts and profits
    accumulate, each driving the imagination to expand
    into distant, untouched regions. One shivers
    or sweats, as the seasons break and fronds and tendrils
    turn into wallpaper, and wallpaper into tendrils and fronds.

    (‘You Must’)

    One stock plunges, another soars; red ink and black ink compete on the ledger pages; mercury rises in one thermometer, falls in another; the imagination races to keep up with ever-changing configurations; and, in the closing image of this passage (Ford’s most intricate) the living stiffens into the artificial, as the artificial blossoms into the delicately alive.
    The lines about the living (‘fronds’) versus the artificial (‘wallpaper’) are typical of Ford’s poetry in being compelling on many counts, of which I shall name only some. First of all, although this compound image has a regular chiastic form – life: art :: art: life, abba – the a has two parts (‘fronds and tendrils’) while the b has, asymmetrically, only one (‘wallpaper’). Second, the closing repetition reverses the two symbols of life, so that instead of the lines reading (as they ‘should’ in a proper abba chiasm) ‘fronds and tendrils: wallpaper :: wallpaper: fronds and tendrils’, they read ‘fronds and tendrils: wallpaper :: wallpaper: tendrils and fronds’. The combination of coercive order (the symmetrical double bracketing abba always intimates a mind made up) with a surprise (the unexpected reversal of the two life-components in the last of the four brackets) engenders a sudden triple-bracketing (‘fronds: tendrils: wallpaper :: wallpaper: tendrils: fronds’; abccba). In the unexpectedness of their reversed arrangement, they ‘defeat’ the foreseen law of the original double abba chiasm, reminding us that life always harbours the possibility of surprise.
    But to what can we ascribe the melting power of the phrase ‘fronds and tendrils . . . tendrils and fronds’? We don’t notice it only because it occurs in a chiasm: we find it exquisite in itself. The word ‘fronds’ evokes ferns, grace, delicacy, branching greenness, and the word ‘tendrils’ not only brings to mind searching, yearning, airiness and fragile greenness, but also punningly suggests ‘tender’ while musically echoing, in its ‘endr’, the ‘rond’ of ‘fronds’. These words put us in mind of everything spring-like and springing, a relief from the speaker’s former shivering and sweating. And after being exposed to the artist’s perennial fear that all his emotional endeavours merely end up as inert designs on paper, we experience his immense relief when art itself stimulates life – when wallpaper, astonishingly, becomes organic, mobile and fertile.

  9. Thanks for posting the poems and the article, jamessal (the latter is especially good, it’s a kind of homing-missile critical style I haven’t encountered much lately). “The Hourglass” is very interesting, if only because it manages to treat a well-worn theme without whining or cliché.

  10. Helen Vendler: The combination of coercive order (the symmetrical double bracketing abba always intimates a mind made up) with a surprise … ‘fronds and tendrils tendrils and fronds’ … astonishingly…fertile
    I find this analysis so rational, so cynically sure of which rung on the ladder to place other people’s work, so arcane, so scary, so self-assured, that it reminds me of an architecture school lecture.

  11. But is that really any worse than the typical style–”Ford’s got some neat lines. That reminds me of when I used to have this beautiful old Ford back when I was at Yale in 1952, and my close friend Harold Bloom compared it to a fragment of Coleridge…”? At least this shows some dedication to the task at hand.

  12. Sure, it’s compellingly specific, I’ll give her that.
    It’s way better criticism than I could write, too. But that’s not saying much.

  13. Monetu I’d say a coin, mne me hvataet menya samogo – I miss me, myself
    I’ll read again though, perhaps I’ll learn many working expressions, recalled a proverb ‘suusan gazraasaa shoroo atgah’, means ‘get a handful of the soil from where sat down’

  14. -the

  15. nice poem but kinda hard to process because of the different styles used. But nonetheless a cool effort.

  16. Ms. Vendler’s poetic aerie-fairie talk may play to the novitiates but does in play in Peoria?

  17. You, Hozo, are saying that unless it’s written for an audience that is uneducated in contemporary poetry it’s worthless to most people — that’s not what I’m saying. She is focussing on the structure and other technical qualities. She makes that appear very complex, and it’s at the expense of any other discussion on her part. I think that is a trick, and what she’s talking about isn’t very important, but I admit that I’m comparing it to a similar trick in architectural discussion.
    I’m sure we’d get a much better observation from Jamessal himself.

  18. To speak of educated or uneducated readers of contemporary poetry would be disdainful. The folks in Peoria will find Ms. Vendler’s academic speak irrelevant either way. After reading her analysis are we, subject to an elucidating review, more confirmed in our initial impressions? Or is it the case that her artificier’s glass house fairly crumbles under the weight of her own strained invention? Nothing the plebs like better than seeing the poetry Bourgeoise fall on their own swords.

  19. She is focussing on the structure and other technical qualities. She makes that appear very complex, and it’s at the expense of any other discussion on her part. I think that is a trick, and what she’s talking about isn’t very important
    You think structure isn’t important to poetry? We obviously have different ideas about poetry. That aside, different strokes for different folks, and just because I always find Vendler illuminating even when I don’t agree with her, that’s no reason anyone else should like her. But it’s a little churlish to dismiss what she says as a “trick” just because it doesn’t appeal to you. She’s been doing this for decades and a lot of people respect it; I doubt they’re all fools.

  20. Some Very Powerful Images

  21. You think structure isn’t important to poetry?
    On the contrary, I also think structure is an important element of buildings, I just can’t stand (any longer) discussions of abba or whatever rhythms in facades and plans and I suspect that poetry structures yield similarly enigmatic secrets.
    ‘Structure’ as a metaphor seems to me so unfathomable that, like tea-leaves to the fortune teller, it can be interpreted almost any way the critic wants: if it’s Wednesday, I see astonishing wallpaper. If you don’t like ‘trick’, and you probably don’t like ‘schtick’, I’ll say it’s Helen Vendler’s party piece. It doesn’t make you a fool for being interested in it. I doubt that I can use it in a positive way, i.e. to write better poetry, and I doubt that very many others can either. I’m not at a stage of poetry appreciation that I could use such a microscopic focus.
    And if she’s going to say something like ‘the symmetrical double bracketing abba always intimates a mind made up’, I think she ought to at least provide footnotes.

  22. so cynically sure of which rung on the ladder to place other people’s work
    I find this a nice and even enlightening phrase, but I don’t think it applies. She’s not pulling a Harold Bloom here, ranking and whatnot; she’s just trying to help people appreciate a poet she admires. I find the technical stuff very helpful.
    if she’s going to say something like ‘the symmetrical double bracketing abba always intimates a mind made up’, I think she ought to at least provide footnotes.
    “Bring forks and spoons! Spoons and forks!”
    You don’t think that guy knows exactly what he wants?

  23. I used to know some people from Peoria. They would probably think a poem where Victorian wallpaper came alive was about a bad acid trip. At least jamessal has finally found someone he isn’t going to call an idiot.

  24. In my own footnote, I ought to mention that Colin Rowe’s famous 196-something essay The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa is an architectural equivalent to Vendler’s piece — only not so well written. Not that I’d expect anyone from here to read it. He makes an abb’cb’ba-type structural analysis of Palladio’s villa,La Malcontenta and then compares it to Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein at Garches only to find that they are … holy shit …the same.

  25. …So it got to the point that architects were always comparing Garches and La Malcontenta as if they were practically twins. Well, I’ve got news: no amount of structural poking about is going to convince me that they are remotely similar except probably to Helen Vendler and a bunch of architects.
    In retrospect, nothing served to tie Le corbusier more firmly to the Humanist tradition of the Renaissance than this villa, realised in 1927, for its form was patently predicated on Palladian types and rhythms.”
    — Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture 1851-1945, p294

  26. I see Mathematics of The Ideal Villa is from 1947. Sorry about that.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: Palladio and Le Corbusier: well, since you mention it, both facades both look roughly square, they are symmetrical, they have a small protruding window or balcony or something in the middle, etc. Or do you mean that there should be more than those general features for them to be considered similar?

  28. Hozo: Or is it the case that her artificier’s glass house fairly crumbles under the weight of her own strained invention?
    A glass house doesn’t crumble, it splinters.

  29. I once hosted a lecture by an architectural historian who discussed the meanings encoded in the form, rhythms etc of Corbusier’s Monastery of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette. So subtle was the encoding that only a few magicians, like himself, seemed able to decipher the allusions. In question time, I asked if we can truly speak of the presence of ‘meaning’ if the encryption prevents its communication. I didn’t get much of a reply.
    Sometimes it is difficult to know whether one is discussing the emperor’s new clothes or simply being a brutish idiot.

  30. Marie-Lucie: they aren’t square, though they’re both golden rectangles (a ratio of the height to the length of 1:1.618).
    Garches is far from symmetrical — anywhere. Take another look.
    But you’re right, of course, there are similarities in these two buildings. Perhaps the easiest seen is on the back side of Garches, they both have a piano nobile.
    I’m sorry m-l, I have to go pick up my wife….

  31. What I shard of said.

  32. PK, the ‘correct’ answer would have been that there are ‘layers of meaning’. But I don’t think the Emperor’s new clothes is the problem, it’s that no one is interested in communicating except in the most esoteric detail about very small points. That discussion would be ok if other discussion also took place, but I don’t think it does in any interesting or significant way.
    … m-l, So they are similar in some ways, but I think that the obvious differences (bearing-wall vs post & beam construction, deep punched windows vs taut strip-windows, total bilateral symmetry vs total asymmetry, pitched roof vs flat roof, classical imagery vs modernist abstraction etc.) are more important.

  33. jamessal says:

    PK, the ‘correct’ answer would have been that there are ‘layers of meaning’.
    I’d put it differently. Meaning is just that pleasant feeling you get when your mind stretches to make connections. The stimuli can’t be fixed: different pokes for different folks. But humans are jealous creatures, so the high will go on resenting the low for enjoying The Da Vinci Code and, mutatis mutandis, vice versa. A bit broad, no? I guess people also have a tendency to try to wrap little insights around big things.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, AJP. Of course an architect would pick up on details that the uninitiated person doesn’t notice. Does one recognize bearing-wall vs post & beam construction just by looking at the buildings from the outside?

  35. Yes. Le Corbusier invented the ‘free plan’. That means that, if you use columns as support instead of walls, you can put the walls (or partitions) wherever you like. The facade of Garches has a continuous strip window. That means it’s not carrying much load. The load is taken by freestanding columns within the building.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    I see! Thank you for the explanation.

  37. AJP, your discussion of architecture is informed and convincing, but I don’t think it’s as automatically transferable to poetry (or, indeed, anything else) as you seem to assume.

  38. AJP, That La Malcontenta building I found oddly disturbing, in spite of it reminding me somehow of both the Parthenon and my home town post office, both of which I like. My immediate thought was why didn’t they use the golden mean to make the proportions? Now that it has been stated that it WAS made with this proportion, I am measuring the proportions on the screen and calculating them and it still seems like the building is either too tall or not long enough. If only the columns were longer–or something. It just isn’t right. The other building is fine, although I’m not particularity fond of that style, and it does look like some of the accoutrements are about ready to fall off, so I don’t think I would want to walk under it. Would a technical discussion of the building along lines of the abba aspects explain the building better? To the public, maybe; to the architect, maybe it would be more meaningful as far as designing buildings that would be more likely to get favorable reviews.
    Did the Vendler tell me anything about the poem? No. Did Siskel and Ebert tell me anything about movies? Yes.

  39. An influential theorist of postmodernism, called Robert Venturi, wrote a book called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). He said that although the Parthenon has a formal connection (through the golden section) to Le Corbusier (it was one of his favorite buildings), it’s its link to your hometown post office which is more germane to us now. ‘Main St. is almost all right’, he said. Then shopping malls replaced Main St.
    I was going to link to the Wiki article on postmodern architecture, but then I saw it: Postmodernism
    The postmodernist movement began in America around the 1960s–1970s and then it spread to Europe and the rest of the world, to remain right through to the present.

  40. Language: I don’t think (the architecture discussion) is automatically transferable to poetry (or, indeed, anything else) as you seem to assume.
    I comparing ‘structure’ in poetry with structure in buildings — the way both use the ABC language metaphor for rhythm especially struck me — but in the meantime Jamessal has sent me the rest of Helen Vendler’s piece about Mark Ford and I see that, as he pointed out, very little of it is about structure. It’s a very interesting article and I like it much better than I thought I would.
    As for transferring the architecture discussion to anything else, It wasn’t me who said that architecture is frozen music. You’re confusing me with Goethe.

  41. ‘I was comparing…’

  42. Whether or not encoded references, meanings structures etc are important surely comes down to whether the art is public, as in architecture, or private, as in poetry. I am not sure it matters a great deal if discussions of poetic form are lifted out of the realm of common understanding as 1) it may make no difference to the enjoyment of the piece 2) no-body is obliged to read them. With architecture the situation is completely different. We cannot avoid the buildings created in our environment; indeed they make that environment for most of us. If the form of a building is justified by reference to a set of rules understood only by an elite the common populace is robbed of a rewarding aesthetic experience because they are excluded from the necessary understandings. People involved in the design of buildings (I was, as an engineer) frequently talk of their desire for an ‘educated client’; what this tends to mean is a client inducted into the intellectual circle of the designers so that no justifications or explanations are required. The man on the alienating street meanwhile is left out in the cold. As I say, this matters little in the world of poetry as the reader has greater freedom to choose their own experiences.
    I could agree that ‘layered meaning’ is the key (and ‘the greats’ usually pull it off) but, in architecture, the layers too often get delaminated and we swing between poles of intellectualised austerity and fairyland whimsicality. The one devoid of sensuality, the other devoid of rationality. (Post modernist architecture at least broke the back of the most arid of modernism.)

  43. Part of your argument depends on whether you think architects and structural engineers are there to provide a service. The rationale for licensing is that public safety is involved, which is reasonable, but I’m not doing to devote my career to providing a service any more than a poet is.
    Postmodernism stopped the most arid kind of modernism, as you say. It also showed that not all modernism was arid — look at some colour pictures of the Barcelona Pavillion. The postmodern theory is that Americans learned about modernism from Hitchcock & Johnson’s 1932 book The International Style, which had only black and white photographs, and people — especially architects — formed the mistaken impression that the work was monochrome. I’m not sure that’s completely the reason, but it’s probably got some truth to it.

  44. SnowLeopard says:

    There’s interesting territory to explore here on the value of technical analysis and educating one’s clients. I think it’s a fallacy to claim either that you need to have a full grasp of technical minutiae to appreciate art, or that such minutiae are irrelevant; our enjoyment is a cognitive experience but isn’t necessarily a fully conscious one, and the technical discussion can help us understand, from a descriptive standpoint, why we find some works more effective than others. No successful poem, building, or piece of music can be executed solely on the basis of formula, but relies a great deal, I think, on judgment and insight as to where the eye will rove or what the ear will anticipate, and, in the mediated flirtation between artist and audience, coyly striking a balance between comforting (or tedious) predictability and (usually pleasant) surprise. These ABA, ABBA, ABACA and other formal structures speak largely to the unconscious expectations we are prone to develop in any particular context, and so generally serve as an analyst’s shorthand — not as a paint-by-numbers template. Do you need to have an academic grasp of Sonata Form to appreciate Beethoven’s Ninth? Absolutely not, and if you did, the work would be a failure. But the craftsman’s perspective does have its benefits. For example, sonata form is generally reserved for the first movement of a symphony. So why did Beethoven’s Ninth use sonata form (or something close to it) in the second and third? To create a pattern, and hence an expectation; he’s committed to using it in the fourth movement, isn’t he? The cello section starts the fourth movement, there’s a modulation that your mind hears even if you do not, you expect a repetition just as there has been in every prior movement — but no: a chorus appears from nowhere to take up the cello line and drive the piece in a completely unexpected direction. Without understanding sonata form you may not be able to articulate why that’s a nice moment, but that doesn’t mean your brain doesn’t pick up on the disruption of pattern at some level — spotting patterns is precisely what our unconscious machinery is so good at. Now, I generally struggle a great deal with poetry. I found the Vendler excerpt informative precisely because she took a craftsman’s perspective, and her attention on particular details helped me get a handle on what I otherwise might have regarded as a meaningless sequence of unconnected words. That doesn’t mean I now go “ooh ooh! fronds tendrils tendrils fronds! how beautiful!” That’s not the point, and things don’t work that way. But as I approach the text with much goodwill and little understanding, it gives me a little common ground, however contrived, with which to better understand where the author was coming from and what he was trying to accomplish.

  45. That’s well put. To what extent, though, do you think that Mark Ford was coming from there?

  46. SnowLeopard says:

    You mean with respect to Vendler’s riff on the frond/tendril tendril/frond mixup? I think the more parsimonious explanation in this case is that, having used both, he needs to repeat both images to avoid unnecessary confusion, but if he had put the words in the same order in the following line, it would’ve just sounded like a clunky repetition that contributed no further meaning. The side effect of flipping them in conjunction with ‘wallpaper’, however, is to suggest a temporal sequence that is continuously being cast in reverse, or oscillating, like the seasons or the stock market. As informed by Vendler, I hazard that this subliminally symbolizes the periodic fluctuation between inspiration and writer’s block, confidence and self-doubt, that is integral to the creative process. But as
    I said, I don’t understand poetry, and never have, so I don’t mind this speculation being written off as nonsense.

  47. jamessal says:

    I think the more parsimonious explanation in this case is that, having used both, he needs to repeat both images to avoid unnecessary confusion,
    That is stingy. Mark Ford isn’t flipping words around hoping to avoid repetition — and he certainly isn’t very concerned about confusion!
    In fact, I would bet he could have articulated something very similar to Vendler’s reading before she wrote her piece. He writes criticism himself; he knows a chiasm when he sees one, let alone writes one. And the interplay of form and meaning is always somewhere in a poet’s mind.
    In short, I generally agree with SnowLeopard; I’m just more enthusiastic and confident about it.

  48. SnowLeopard says:

    I gladly defer to sophisticates on such matters. But there is nothing shameful or stingy in an artist seizing on mundane considerations as a source of ideas or an invitation to push their work further — that, too, is part of the creative process. I dimly recall Kierkegaard saying somewhere that his best ideas came from typographical errors, but can’t locate the quote at the moment.

  49. SnowLeopard says:

    Ah, here it is, from Either/Or:

    Tested Advice for Authors:
    One carelessly writes down one’s personal observations, has them printed, and in the various proofs one will eventually acquire a number of good ideas. Therefore, take courage, you who have not yet dared to have something printed. Do not despise typographical errors, and to become witty by means of typographical errors may be considered a legitimate way to become witty.

    Not quite as I remembered it, but close enough to make the point.

  50. jamessal says:

    there is nothing shameful or stingy in an artist seizing on mundane considerations as a source of ideas or an invitation to push their work further
    Quite true, and I stand corrected.
    I just wanted to make that point that to a poet nothing Vendler wrote would be arcane at all. In fact, there’s nothing there that a few wiki searches (chiasmus, abba) and a little familiarity with poetry criticism (form, meaning) wouldn’t make clear to anyone with an open mind.
    And I’m certainly not one of the sophisticates. I’m 25 and I never went to college. I just enjoy understanding how the stuff I like works.

  51. jamessal says:

    “make THE point..”

  52. jamessal says:

    That’s a nice quote, too.

  53. You’re confusing me with Goethe.
    Must be all those goats (or, as Inspector Clouseau would say, “goets”).
    To what extent, though, do you think that Mark Ford was coming from there?
    While I agree with jamessal that that form of analysis is congenial to him and he probably was “coming from there,” the question is irrelevant as a way to judge the criticism. It is surely obvious that art can and must be judged by standards that would not have occurred to the creator.

  54. Yes, you’re quite right Language, if I hadn’t been in a hurry I would have qualified my question by saying that analysis of a piece of work isn’t in the business of interpreting the artist’s intention.
    I, on the other hand, am more interested in Mark Ford’s intention than in Helen Vendler’s analysis. I just happen to be reading Mark Ford’s piece in the Jan. 1 LRB on Edward Thomas’s poetry, and it’s NOTHING like the Helen Vendler. It’s about the poet in relation to his work (well, ok, he’s reviewing an anthology).
    (In the same issue, on video games, John Lanchester says, all in one paragraph: 1) ‘if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable’. 2) Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane, 3) Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. — All great aphorisms, I thought.

  55. )

  56. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: I love that parenthesis. Simply elegant. It reminds me of one hand clapping.
    Not being very fond or understanding of poetry myself, I left reading the poems and long comments until now. It does help to read comments by people who do not simply give a basic reaction (“I like it”) but analyze some of the formal features.
    With Helen Vendler’s fragment on “fronds and tendrils …tendrils and fronds” I thought that she gave good comments on the words and their sounds but was missing the impact of stress and rhythm: with “tendrils” at the end of a verse, as with “shivers” just above, the lack of stress on the last syllable reinforces the fact that the sentences are unfinished (and will continue in the next verse), while “fronds” at the very end signals the end of the stanza with strong stress. Inverting “tendrils” and “fronds”in the lines where they do occur would not affect the relationship between the sounds of the words, but would change the rhythm, and the change would weaken the impact of the verses when spoken aloud.
    SnowLeopard, thank you for the Beethoven analysis.

  57. AJP, I am abysmally ignorant of architecture, but it seems to me that this talk of structure and forms and rhythm in architecture-ology is a half-assed misapplication of the terms as used in poetics, where they are technical, objectively defined, and fully meaningful. I’d compare the relationship (chiastically) to that between structural linguistics, where terms like “emic” and “etic” actually mean something, to Structuralism, where they are mere pachydermic borborygmi.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    JC: pachydermic borborygmi
    What a phrase! Useful in many contexts. I have to agree about Stucturalism, which became epidemic among French intellectuals at one point. I suppose the final i of borborygmi is the diphthong? Not that I can imagine myself actually saying the words in public, the “borbor” part I find difficult to pronounce because of the r’s after the o’s.

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