Posts Tagged ‘revision

14
Apr
15

Review of Alexandra Socarides Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics

Socarides – Dickinson UnboundIn Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, Alexandra Socarides reads Emily Dickinson’s poems to understand how the materiality on which Dickinson wrote her poems affected her poetics. Socarides examination is divided in to five loosely linked chapters, plus an “Afterword,” and each chapter examines a material aspect of Dickinson’s writing practice.

The first chapter examines how the folded sheets of paper that Dickinson wrote on and that would later be bound with pinholes and red thread (the fascicles) not only affected the composition of individual poems but the manner in which they were arranged. As for the composition, for instance, larger pieces of paper allowed Dickinson to expand poems, while smaller pieces forced her to condense. Socarides also contends that the poems were not ordered thematically, chronologically, to be printed, or ordered in any other method that is often attributed to Dickinson’s organizational method. They were ordered, Socarides suggests, not only so the poems could be rearranged, but so Dickinson could examine the limitations and possibilities present in written texts (private) and printed texts (public dissemination). This side of the argument is proven well by comparison with other writers of the time who had similar practices and by the process of how she made her fascicles, despite the easy options that were available to her in a 19th century industrial culture with ready-made notebooks. However, as for an individual poem, Socarides tries to read the poems as an experiment in lineation based on the width of the page. Here the argument is less convincing as Dickinson clearly had a line in mind, most likely informed by ear and rhythm, and the edge of the page did not affect the length she heard. Even if the page was too narrow to contain the whole length of the line before extending onto a second line in the written drafts, Dickinson was clearly hearing beyond the edge of the page. In the end, Socarides does show that fascicles should not be read as books, but they should be read as something that is made and that does work.

The second chapter looks at poems that were part of an epistolary practice and a copying practice – poems first written in a fascicle and copied into a letter or first written in a letter and then copied into a fascicle or letters written as poems – and how there was no distinction between the epistolary and poetry genres for Dickinson, despite what critics have claimed. Dickinson, like others in 19th century America, was not concerned with the differences of genre but was concerned with the act of composition and the tension that exists between private and public communication. Socarides convincingly shows how the letter and poem are often indistinguishable by closely examining the context and the spacing and indentation of “As if I asked a common alms –” and how it is laid out in the letter in which it first appeared. As a result, critics relying on the demarcation between modes of writing to inform their criticism now have to reassess how they approach Dickinson’s compositions. More important, perhaps, is how the concern of printing or laying out Dickinson’s poems and letters has overshadowed how Dickinson was challenging the media of private and public acts of composition and her use “I.”

The third section examines another genre – the elegy, which Socarides defines as a poem shaped by the conflict of individual bereavement and the traditions of memorialization. In this way, Socarides shows how Dickinson challenges the assumptions of a particular genre by realizing poetry’s inability to represent loss and provide consolation. Socarides contends that the use of “or” – either as indicator to variations of revision or how it is used in a poem – interrupts time and causes a looping effect, which is in contrast to the temporal flow of an elegiac poem. The argument extends further into the fascicles themselves, which consist of multiple folded pieces of paper each one with a beginning and ending and often containing variations on portraying or interacting with death. In other words, the “or,” the folded sheet, the whole fascicle, and the numerous poems centered on death highlight the interruption of life’s journey by death, which is a creative reading of the materiality of the fascicles.

The fourth chapter opens brilliantly but confusingly. Socarides reads “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind” in relation to Dickinson abandoning her fascicle writing practice and turning to loose-leaf-paper-poem writing and to show how “the poems are the paper” (106). The premise lies on the idea that the fascicles have a sequence, which earlier Socarides claims did not. If the reader can navigate around that, then the argument that the loose-leaf-paper-poem writing confounds sequence (both spatial and temporal) and enacts the limits of sequence as an ordering device becomes a fascinating argument, not to mention the comparisons between the fascicles and the metaphors and images in “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind.”

Chapter five picks up on a mostly neglected area of study – Dickinson’s later writings on scraps of different types of paper. Here, Socarides trains us how to read these fragmented and less formal writings. Again, Socarides sees it as Dickinson confronting the issues of sequence and relationships, as well as closure, which arises with her many variant endings for poems. During these later years of writing, Dickinson had many unfinished poems, but, nonetheless, she saved these unfinished poems to preserve “the material site of this [writing] process” (132).

The “Afterword” teaches us how we can apply Socarides’ materials readings to other poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, and she highlights the significance material culture had on writing for 19th century American women poets.

While each chapter and “Afterword” focus on a specific aspect of materiality and each could be a stand-alone essay, Socarides, in the end, successfully shows a relationship between the material being written on and Dickinson’s poetics, which is Dickinson exploring the public and private media of communication and confounding various genres of poetry. This book is not just for Dickinson scholars but is also for those interested in materiality or the revision and writing process. It’s a book that will change how you read and approach literature, and, as a result, is highly recommended.

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Socarides, Alexandra. Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

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14
Mar
12

The Afterlives of a Poem, or What Happens to Your Poem When You’re Done Writing It

I woke up early this morning thinking about what happens to a poem after you stop working on it, and there are four possible afterlives for a poem.

But before I get there, let’s look at why we stop working on a poem.

One reason is that we think the poem is done. We’ve worked hard at it, had fun with it, and had a good conversation with it, and now there is nothing left to work on or converse with and the only fun left in this poem is reading it over and over again and feeling good.

Another reason we stop working on a poem is because we realize the poem is going nowhere. Oh, you went into the poem with good intentions, but along the way, you and the poem both realized it just wasn’t going to work out or there was too much awkwardness with it, and you couldn’t overcome all the obstacles. It’s kinda like going on a first date, and when you meet the other person, your fly is down, and then an hour after you eat, you realize you’ve had a piece of spinach in your teeth for the last hour, and you also told a joke that you thought was funny, but it turned out to be offensive. At this point, you realize the date is not salvageable, and you part ways.

A third reason for stopping work on a poem is that you no longer know what to do with the poem or the poem is being stubborn and not helping you help it. This type of poem can actually be a worthwhile poem. It’s doing good things, it sounds well, it has meanings you understand and that are just beyond you, and it has good energies. It’s not a bad poem. It’s fine. You could share it with people and they would like it and a journal might even publish it. But still it seems to be lacking something, but you don’t know what it is. This type of poem is like the date where you have a good time filled with good conversations and laughs and that lasts for hours and late into the night, but it feels like it was an only hour, and you walk her home, but she doesn’t give you a good night kiss. “What?” you ask yourself. “I thought everything was going well. What happened?” And so you walk away having had a good time, but you are confused. Maybe there will be some clarity tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow you will get a kiss. But for now, it’s time to be alone.

A fourth reason for stopping work on a poem is that you have come to an impasse. In this situation, you know what is wrong with the poem and you know it can better, but you just can’t figure out how to make it better at the moment. You know you will, but you just can’t figure it out right now. This is the poem you set aside on purpose and let your unconscious work on it for the next few days or weeks. This is the date with whom you play hard to get. You let the other person do the work. “Maybe I’ll kiss you at some later date . . . if you’re lucky.”

So however it has come to be, you stop working on a poem. You always stop working on poem, unless you are working on it in an unconscious manner. But there always comes a point when you put down you pencil or pen or walk away from the typewriter or keyboard. When this occurs, there are four afterlives or possibilities for the poem between now and the next time you look at.

The first afterlife or possibility is that at some future time you will return to the poem and it will be even stronger than you remember it. The sounds will be cleaner and underscore meanings and emotional content, the imagery will be crisper, the leaps will seem downright natural and universal, and it will be clear and sound and feel true.

Another afterlife is that the poem doesn’t change at all. It’s exactly the same as you left it and remembered it. It’s done nothing.

A third possibility is that any problems you had with the poem have somehow sorted themselves out, or at least some of them. This is a magical moment. And you feel delighted and relieved. This poem might still need a little work, but the big work has taken care of itself.

I’m not sure how those three afterlife possibilities occur, but they do.

The Afterlife of a PoemThe fourth afterlife is the one that woke me up, and I think I know the causes of this afterlife possibility. The fourth possibility for the poem after you stop working on it and then return to it sometime later is that the poem gets worse. We’ve all experienced this. We all know this feeling. In fact, from what I’ve heard from most people is the poem being worse is the typical afterlife result of a poem. But why does the poem get worse, especially if when we left the poem we thought that it was a strong poem. Especially after we had such a good time with it and we got a kiss good night.

Here is what I think happens. When we are in the act of writing a poem, we are gods that know everything. We know what each word means or how we want it to mean, we know how each sound is contributing or how we want it to contribute, and we know what the images are doing or how we want the images to perform. In fact, there are certain words, sounds, and images that act as pillars for the poem. These pillars hold up the poem. (Yes, all the words, sounds, and images are pillars holding up the poems, but some bear more weight than others.) These pillars are initially filled with personal meanings and associations and/or immediate associations. The pillars also contain immediate energies that arise from a poem in its first drafts. While we are in the first composition of the poem, we can create all sorts of magic to make those pillars stand tall and firm. If they wobble a little bit, we just wiggle our fingers at them and cast the magical spell “Stay.” And the poem stays. What we are doing here is imposing on the poem. We are hovering over the poem and controlling it. When we walk away it will, of course, collapse.

But this collapse doesn’t have to happen. Before you leave the poem, you need to stand outside of it and really talk to the poem. You need to ask a word, image, sound, or rhythm something like, “I know that if I say ‘bison’ I will think of the animal and meat and some of those cave paintings in France, and those all have special meanings for me, but will the reader be able to experience those things? Will my unique experiences confuse the poem? Are the associations to ‘bison’ mine own or are they more universally shared? Will anyone else think of meat or paintings or will they just think of the animal? or might they even think of other things like a baseball team?” In addition, some of the associations that you have during the writing of the poem you might forget when you return to the poem after some time has passed, and that is why the poem becomes worse. You have become the reader who is not intimate with the meanings that only you knew at the poem’s composition. The poem is not speaking beyond you.

This means before you leave the poem, you have to make sure those pillars are solid and coated in stainless steel. They have to endure. And the pillars also have to be real. They can’t just exist inside of you or in some “imaginary gardens.”

Charles OlsonAnother reason a poem gets worse after you leave it is that it loses energy. A poem in its early stage has lots and lots of energy. It’s a “high-energy construct,” as Charles Olson called it. There’s excitement in writing the poem, and sometimes the writing-excitement energy can be confused with the actual energy of the poem. If the actual poem doesn’t have much energy and the energy you are experiencing is just because of the excitement of writing it, then after you stop writing and then return to the poem later, there will be less energy than you expected and the poem will seem worse.

But there’s also an energy discharge, and this one is harder to explain, but I’ll call it original energy for now, but I’ll provide more subtle definitions below. A poem always radiates energy. The stronger the poem, the more energy it radiates it and the more sparks it can provide in peoples’ lives. The problem is how to contain that original energy of the poem. Each poem starts off in a high-energy field. (Well, many do.) The poem screams to be written. It’s knocking on the doors to your brain and heart and soul, and saying, “Let’s write. I’ve something new to add to the universe that will change people.” or “Let’s write. I’ve something cool to say.” That energy and the energy that results when you write the poem are the energies that are hard to sustain. The energy slowly leaks out. This is why a poem can also seem worse after stopping work on it and returning to it later. These are the hardest energies to sustain during revision.

Allen GinsbergIn fact, in my experiences, revision tends to revise away that original energy, especially too much revision. I think this is why Allen Ginsberg says to “revise lightly.” I like that advice, but for me, it’s slightly different. For me it is “revise quickly.”

I used to work on poems for days or weeks and sometimes years. I used to revise and revise and revise. In my revisions, though, by the end, the final poem never seemed that great. Oh sure, there were all these technical pyrotechnics, but the poem was no better for it. The poem just showed that I knew some poetic techniques and that I had learned something about poetry. The technique had become the poem. The poem was without energy or with little. The energy that was there was me saying I wrote this poem and from me reading it. But this is not the point.

I’ve found that once I’ve stopped working on a poem, it became really hard to come back to it because I couldn’t remember the original energies. “Remember” might not be the best word nor “original.” Maybe it is that I could not feel the the impetus energy. I can’t feel the impetus energy. Impetus energy being the energy that caused the poem. Original energy being the energy of the poem as it is being written.

So what I’ve learned to do is to revise quickly. I think all my years of enduring revisions have prepared me for this. But now I need to revise quickly. I need to contain that impetus energy before it goes away. I need to condense days, weeks, or years of revisions into one moment. I need to be able to quickly determine if a word, image, or sound is going to go beyond my personal associations and be relevant to others. I need to make the language crisp now. I need to make sure all the harmonies are tight now. I need to make sure the rhythms rise and fall in the best spots now. I need to contain all this energy now so it will endure, because if I come back to it later that impetus energy will be gone. There will still be original energies and they will radiate, but the impetus creative energy will be gone.

Quantum Foam

Quantum Foam

It’s kind of like the Big Bang. I can’t see the Big Bang, but I know everything that happened shortly after. I know the quantum foam that appeared at 10-72 seconds after the Big Band and the inflation that occurred at 10-41 seconds after the Big Bang, but I can’t see the Big Bang anymore. It’s gone. I can feel original energies, but I can’t feel the impetus energies.

Of course, this revision technique is unique to me. I know others who can revise for lengthy periods of time and still maintain energy in the poem. But I do think energy leakage is the reason for a poem feeling worse after you come back to it some time later.

Still my revise quickly method is applicable to everyone, or at least worth consideration. When you revise, be aware of what the poem is doing. That is, is it doing something immediate and personal and something you hope it to do or is it doing something enduring and universal? If it is the former, don’t leave the poem until it is doing the latter. Make sure you have strong pillars. Analyze your energies. Are the poem’s energies coming from the excitement of writing or are they the genuine energies from the poem? If the former, don’t leave the poem until the energies are the latter. Always try to revise to keep impetus and original energies. Do not revise away impetus and original energies.//

16
Apr
11

On Eric G. Wilson’s My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing

A version of this may appear in an upcoming issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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William Blake

William Blake in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips.

Why do we need another book about William Blake? I have three main reasons. One, I’d say we need another book because Blake seems to have been forgotten or is only remembered as just another one of those old poets in an anthology. Two, we need to be reminded of Blake’s genius. We need to be reminded of Imagination. We need to be reminded of Energy and Original Creation. Three, because Eric G. Wilson’s 85-page book, My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing (University of Iowa Press, 2011), is inspired and filled with energy. While reading it, you will want to return to Blake, and, more importantly for the writers out there, you will be revitalized.

Eric G. Wilson's My Business Is To Create: Blake's Infinite WritingMy Business is to Create begins with a brief biography of Blake. This is followed by the story of Allen Ginsberg’s first vision of Blake and a list of other writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and graphic artists who were inspired and influenced by Blake. And then the book’s first of many creative epiphanies:

Originality equals genius; imitation is mediocrity (p 8).

That’s good insight and good advice, but only if you know what creativity means, if it still means anything at all after its overuse. Throughout this book, Wilson examines what creativity is, and he uses Blake as the exemplar of creativity. First, he takes a closer look at “inspiration, one of Blake’s primary terms for creativity” (p 9).  Inspiration, to Blake, is to view something as you see it and then holding to that vision, especially when it goes against the consensus view or generalized views, which Blake says “are the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer” (p 14). From this inspiration, one can create. The inspiration is the “Divine Vision.” Even nature can’t challenge one’s own imagination, for:

imagination apprehends and depicts the world’s illimitable fecundity. It is a way of knowing as well as a mode of expression (p 14).

Wilson is inspired. He has energy. An energy that penetrates into the reader. I feel it. I feel almost like I did shortly after my first encounters with Blake – inspired, wide-eyed, and bursting with new poems.

Martin Buber's I and ThouAfter you find your personal view, Wilson continues, you are ready to create relationships with the world and nature. And these relationships are not objective. They are no longer relationships with the other. They are personal and meaningful. Using Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Wilson makes this Blakean idea of relationships clear to us. That is, once you have made this I-and-Thou relationship, you can:

[g]aze at life as though you were always blessing it, consecrating it, humbly, as holy, and then your biases will be relaxed and your curiosity will be aroused (p 22).

This and some practical examples that Wilson lists are ways to go about being creative and, hopefully, to experience “pure sensation unencumbered by meaning” (p 24), as Marius von Senden says. To widen this view, to move beyond, Wilson says that you should embrace polarities:

Saying yes and no to the same thing, hovering between authorization and invalidation, I undergo the joy of expansion (p 28).

Wilson also gives us an overview of Blake as the inventor of: free verse; the idea that form is never more than an extension of content; the prose poem; and, though Wilson doesn’t say it,  I will, the inventor of cubism – “in which single events are presented from numerous simultaneous perspectives” (p 39).

Wilson also devotes a chapter to revising. He explores why we do it, how it works, and, of course, how Blake revised:

To be freed from the notion that first drafts even exist, to understand that you’re already revising the minute you put word to page: this makes it easier to modify those initial sentences. There’s nothing special about them. They’re yesterday’s news (p 44).

And:

[R]ealize that revising is creating, is life, and therefore the more beautiful our revisions, the more vital our lives, and, surprisingly, the more innocent (p 45).

I love that sentence, especially after Wilson points out that for Blake innocence “is knowledge” (p 46). Or, more precisely, to quote Blake: “Unorganized Innocence, An Impossibility / Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance” (p 46).

As I said before, Wilson’s My Business is to Write is filled with energy. Wilson is possessed like Blake, and, like Blake, this book is filled with many quotable lines, as I’ve shown above, and some of which I’ll list here:

This is a writing that is infinite, an eternal composition, draft after draft after draft, an editorial mysticism whose goal is not the “final,” but the “farther” (p 29).

The more deeply you descend into your specific haunts, the more universal you become (p 41).

[On the Swendenborgians]: [T]he hormones get you to heaven, and paradise is within the genitalia (p 55).

Let you carnality pursue the poem (p 56).

Industry [the process of writing or creating] is all there is. To lose yourself in it, to become it, its boundless but rugged promises, its oceans of tone and form, rimed now with rough ice, and then freshened by the warm trades: this is grace (p 69).

Not only do I think this is a good book worth returning to, it will be a good book for writers or any creative person (as I’ve already mentioned on Facebook and Twitter). I also think it can be a terrific book for creative writing classes. In addition, midway through Wilson’s My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, I had the belief that Blake was actually writing the book, and if he wasn’t, then Blake had possessed Wilson during the writing. In the end, Blake would approve of this book and I encourage it.

On an aside, I still haven’t figured out where to put this book in my library. Should it go with my Blake books and literary criticisms of Blake or with my books on and about writing? Ah, such a fun dilemma to have.

One last aside, a personal note: Wilson is obviously a writer, and he clearly writes about situations that writers encounter. Often he writes so well about situations I have been in, I wonder if he was there when it was happening to me. I love that he somehow knows me. Perhaps you will feel the same. Consider this paragraph:

So often we are troubled by past and future, and thus alienated from the present moment. I sit at my computer on a Wednesday morning trying to write. But my attention keeps straying to what has happened earlier in my life, maybe two years ago, perhaps ten minutes, those events toward which I nostalgically long or from which I regretfully recoil. Also I anticipate an appointment to which I’ve been looking forward or dread an upcoming responsibility. Dissipated by these feelings, I hover in a ghostly limbo, composed of apparitions of a past that is no more and haunts of future not yet here. While drafting among these abstractions, I’m not really living. I’m overly self-conscious, obsessed with my personal history, my success, my failures. I can’t get out of myself, connect to something beyond, something “not me.” I’ve imprisoned myself in a ratio of my own making, egotism’s same dull round: wherever I look, there I am. Distant from this life – right here, right now, this instant – and perversely enamored of monotony, of death, I can’t write anything worth keeping. I don’t know what to do. I just know I’ve got to kill time, somehow (p 70-1).

As you can tell, I can keep writing about this book as it has impacted me. I want to go farther.

Now, because Ginsberg heard the voice of Blake in a vision and the voice sang “Ah, Sun-flower,” here are The Fugs singing “Ah, Sun-flower”.

//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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