Tag Archives: Poems

Pablo Neruda’s ‘Walking Around’

Neruda

Pablo Neruda

My exposure to Pablo Neruda first came through Robert Bly, who deemed him a ‘wild romantic’ whose ‘love of life never falters.’ Yet his poetry is full of what seem like immediate contradictions to this sentiment. One of his more famous poems ‘Walking Around’ begins: ‘It so happens I am sick of being a man.’ This is Bly’s translation, though in several readings of the poem he prefers the translation of ‘man’ to ‘human being’, adding a particularly darker telos to the poem.

This poem encroaches on Whitman’s operatic line but never truly approaches it. Instead, it’s immediate Whitmanian likeness is its engagement in catalogue but with two important differences: the poet is having a negative response to the litany and there is no redemption through metaphysical unity or the more human notion of simple fraternity.

Here the litany acts as negation, a desire to opt into unseeing. His desire ‘to lie still like stones or wool’, already a kind of sensory erasure, is corrected and redoubled by the lines that end the stanza. ‘The only thing I want is to see no more stores’, etc. He seems put off by the notion of utility that stones, wool, stores, spectacles, and elevators have; in the Aristotelian sense, he is put off by the intrinsic telos of these objects, their existence as a means to an end.

The poem goes on in this realm of dark action: ‘it would be marvelous /… to kill a nun.’

Bly

Robert Bly

This kind of action, a violence antithetical to the Whitmanian ethos, is one bereft of utility. But the poem takes an interesting turn. While impish to the point of murder, it comes to confirm a love of life, though through a back door. He states, ‘I don’t want so much misery. / I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb, / alone under the ground…’ Death becomes rendered as a new kind of telos, it is this ‘go[ing] on’, presumably for infinity, that gives the poet his desire to live, with purpose or no. This desire to live necessitates an acute, poetic vision, however grotesque.

That’s why Monday…
pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

On the surface, this poem seems to be functioning in opposition to his odes, and I believe Neruda wants to initially convince the reader of that. The colloquial, somewhat affected nature of ‘It so happens’ seems to be in direct response to an interlocutor. Perhaps it is a response to Bly’s assertion that he is a poet whose ‘love of life never falters.’ Or perhaps it is an attempt to get out from under the shadow of Whitman in the Bloomian sense. Neruda does seem to engage in an agon with Whitman. Maybe this is why, superficially, the litanies do not have a Whitmanian resolve; we do not end up in the ocean or some terrestrial, metaphorical equivalent, as so often happens in his odes. But I think that, thankfully, neither Neruda nor the poem can escape Whitman and life is affirmed.

Here’s the poem:

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.

Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.

It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.

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Lorine Niedecker’s Neuroaesthetics

This is part two of my posts on the neurology of reading in poetry. If you have not yet read the previous post on Dickinson, I would recommend that you do so first, as there are some important concepts that are integral to understanding this attempt at Lorine Niedecker’s (1903-1970) work. I chose Niedecker for two reasons: the first is the obvious connection of her writing to Dickinson’s and the second was because of this quote: ‘Gail Roub asked Lorine once: “Who are you?” [She answered,] 
‘William Carlos Williams said I am the Emily Dickinson of my time.”’

Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker

Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker

Niedecker almost perpetually inhabits a liminal zone; in fact, she seemed to demand this position throughout her life. Living as a self-described ‘laborer’ and as a poet allowed her to dwell in both the physical and the abstract. She built her cabin along the waters of Rock River in Wisconsin, fulfilling that classic, melancholic image of the ruminative figure standing on the shore gazing into the infinity of sky and water. Jenny Penberthy points to this disposition of liminality several times in her introduction to Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). She writes, ‘[Her] poems offer a rich and subtle study of folk habits made by a poet with twin allegiances to a rural backwater and a metropolitan avant-garde’ (6). And in an essay on Niedecker, Penberthy continues: melancholy ‘She’s drawn to threshold states, to boundaries between the familiar and the alien, between the facilitating contours of syntax and an alien content. In other poems where the hold on syntax loosens, she pushes further into pre-discursive language, into the non-expressive, into the abstract.’

With an understanding of the neurology of reading, it becomes clear that Niedecker’s projects progress beyond mere experiments in abstraction. Her poems consistently demand something more from the reader, something beyond the trancelike state in which she may have composed them.

The process of reading a written word occurs within a tenth to a half a second and we maintain in our memory the graphic or symbolic expanse of what is seen and its relation to what precedes or follows it, this allows us to make meaning contextually if our mental dictionary of word meaning does not immediately recognize the word. The mental dictionary of word meaning is different in each person. It is dependent upon culture, learning, etc.; as one moves from culture to culture, from semantic space to semantic space, meaning varies through slippage. Already Niedecker’s ‘abstraction’ is significant, as it seems to rely on the unreliability of the reader’s recognition and understanding. In Niedecker’s poetry—which desires to assert an inter-subjective meaning between the spaces of personal significance—slippage and linguistic trickery that relies on the irregularity of the saccadic eye becomes key.

The inherent formula of poetry allows Niedecker a field to assert these two techniques, given that ‘whenever our eyes stop, we recognize [only] one or two words.’ In a letter to Roub, Niedecker describes what she is attempting with her poetry: ‘Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone…. I loosely called it “reflections” or as I think it over now, reflective, maybe. The basis is direct and clear what has been seen or heard-but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness…. The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind’ (Roub 41).

Take a segment from part V of ‘Progression’:

In Swalery I forgot my face,
beyond that it’s something to have under a sunbonnet
when aphorists and haymakers meet. And doctor,
nothing so good I know for intricate rhyme schemes
in six-syllable lines with ten syllable lines
of an evangelical staple as bug-sing and carrot seed,
observe now, while perspective is the next show
in the gallery, it’s a fervid shade, and there’ll be
stricken areas in the throat waiting for the blowing.
A touch of noon? Try then: each man to his own sleep
in the night skies. Gaspaciousness enmillions
dread-centric introspectres. Future studies
will throw much darkness on the home-talk.

The difficulty of this excerpt demands rereading and subsequent explication (one can revel in the sounds and that is fine), and, as I have stated, it is this demand that renders meaning within the poem.

In this poem, Niedecker compresses the distance between language and culture. The segment begins with a setting that becomes at once no place and every place due to the ambiguity of Swalery (as far as I can tell Swalery does not exist). Niedecker immediately asserts the ubiquity of female oppression within the realm of sexual politics. The face becomes something beneath the obscuring, female ‘sunbonnet’ to be worn when hosting. The semantic field of ‘sunbonnet’ seems to infantilize women as well, as it is infants that now primarily wear them. The infantilized state is continued in the youthful, perhaps uneducated syntax ‘doctor / nothing so good I know for,’ which is followed by the statement of her roles as poet and laborer, declaring her self-sufficiency in dialectical terms, that is as the diminished female, the empowered female poet, and then again the diminished female whose labor is confined to the garden:

[diminished–>]nothing so good I know for [empowered –>] intricate rhyme/schemes/in six-syllable lines within ten-syllable lines/
of an evangelical staple as [diminished –>] bug-sing and carrot seed

Finally her statement ‘Future studies / will throw much darkness on the home-talk’ seems to predict (in the temporal realm of the poem) sexual revolutions, the empowerment of the female, and the subsequent vexation of the male in regard to that power.

The most fascinating and wonderful part about this poem is the sentence ‘Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres.’ It is here that Niedecker is operating within that liminal zone between abstraction and meaning. Neurologically, the synaptic pathways responsible for encoding and decoding are interrupted by the unrecognizable words. All that becomes important on the first read through is that very important aspect of poetry, sound. ‘Mental conversion into sound plays an essential role when we read a word for the first time. Initially we cannot possibly access its meaning directly, since we have never seen the word spelled out. All we can do is to convert it into sound, find that the sound pattern is intelligible, and through this indirect route, come to understanding the word. Thus sounding is often the only solution when we encounter a new word’ (Dehaene 27).

It is easy to dismiss these lines of poetry as mere sounds or useless units of language. As Dehaene writes, ‘English has a particularly extensive collection of complex graphemes such as “ought,” “oi,” and “au.” Our visual system has learned to treat these groups as bona fide units, to the point where we no longer pay attention to their actual letter content.’ But with a close, albeit subjective reading, the neologisms develop great and personal meaning for readers as well as Niedecker herself. Through the process of memory and word recognition, we can project meaning onto the neologisms. The preceding sentence slowly unfolds as a declaration of death between the line breaks:

each man to his own sleep
in the night skies.

As the result of the deaths of these men, the speaker is haunted by not necessarily their deaths but the demons it manifests within the self. The root words in gaspaciousness are gas, space, and –ness; gas-space is the gas that fills space and the –ness turns the word into a noun, so a synonym would be something like ether. Enmillions is easy: the prefix –en forms a verb, so it simply means ‘makes millions’. Dread-centric can only mean concerned with dread and introspectres (intro+spectres) means inner ghosts, or colloquially inner demons. ‘Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres’ means, then: ‘Out of the ether is made millions of inner-demons that cause dread’ i.e. guilt, fear, etc. It is this difficult, seemingly nonsensical sentence upon which the entire poem turns, as it encapsulates the anxieties of being a cultural being suffused in the complexity of a language delineating the very complexities of that culture.

In this disruption or transmogrification of language, Niedecker opens the readers to new categories of thought by exploring human experience through the use of various possibilities of language. In her own exploration of human experience and linguistic experimentation, she also places the experience of the reader in the fore; the reader’s role becomes central to the entire process, dependent upon culturally varying memory banks. Niedecker once wrote in a letter to Gail Roub, ‘I like planting poems in deep silence, each person gets at the poems for himself.’ Dickinson’s poetics accomplish the same things: ‘Dickinson may encourage us to pay more attention to our own perception of texts and reflect on figures of cognition and their cognitive effects on processes of reading’ (Sielke 69). It is not merely this assertion of subjectivity that Niedecker and Dickinson have in common. In a poem like ‘Progression’, Niedecker repeats the same techniques in Dickinson’s ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’; however, whereas Dickinson placed the complexity almost wholly within the mind, Niedecker explicitly places the interiority of the speaker into a cultural context.

Dickinson and Niedecker’s sometimes nonsensical lines demand that the reader (on a conscious and subconscious level) considers more deeply the perplexing graphic representations put forth on the page as the saccadic eye drifts into the aporetic space of line breaks. Through obfuscation, meaning is rendered more immediately and viscerally. Their success at this (and therefore the success of their poetry) is due to the ability to give multiple meanings to language that is either present outside of our linguistic territory; that is, to operate within the liminal position between complete linguistic abstraction and objective meaning rife with psychological and or cultural significance.

Works Cited

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

Penberthy, Jenny. ‘A little too little: Re-reading Lorine Niedecker.’ Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.illinois.edu/. Web. 21 May 2013.

Penberthy, Jenny. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. 1. University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Roub, Gail. ‘Getting to Know Lorine Niedecker.’ Wisconsin Academy Review. 32.3 (1986): 37-41. Print.

A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

snowA blizzard has begun. Their predictions were right but my vexation at having to reschedule a flight to Vermont subsided with that first sight of accumulation on the streets of Manhattan. I had hoped to experience the storm from some place of sylvan solitude; in lieu of drooping conifers and ivory fields, I turned to Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) and angled an IKEA chair toward the northeast window.

Since yesterday afternoon I have been mulling over how on earth I might follow the ‘The Broken Tower.’ Now it seems the obvious choice is Stevens. Crane and Stevens are both great 20th century American mystic poets. Both struggled intensely with the ideologies of a Judeo-Christian God and seemed to have favored in the end a form of Gnosticism, or what Stevens called ‘The Presence of an External Master of Knowledge.’ Put simply (something Stevens—and for that matter Crane—would not favor) it is a Oneness, a Oneness with nature, consciousness, all that mystic, Whitmanian jazz.

‘The Snow Man’ presents this sense of the unified whole brilliantly through the complete cohesion between form and content. Usually I would avoid this trope, however it is so well done in this poem that noted linguist Jay Keyser says it is the best short poem in the English language for this very reason. Personally, I feel that’s a stretch but it does accomplish that particular characteristic of great poetry better than any I can think of.

Wallace Stevens

The poem is a single sentence divided into syntactical units by semi-colons. As the poem is read and we arrive at the end of each unit, the mind renders the unit a completion. However each persistent ‘and’ necessitates the reassessment (the re-view) of what was read before and so through the apprehension of the unit, we try to reach the whole. In this way, reading ‘The Snow Man’ is in fact like watching a snowstorm: the eyes follow a portion of flakes down until they reach their supposed journey’s end, the eye then lifts, gathering another segment in its gaze and repeats in an attempt to witness the power of the storm. It is a wonderful analogy for the process of reading and re-reading—a necessary part of loving poetry.

More than this, the poem is the invitation to view things as they appear to you. This poem is more pertinent than ever in a world in which we take in information ceaselessly, clicking the shiny hyperlinks and formulating our opinions based not on the content of the page but the ads that flicker beside them or the inane comments that sit beneath. In the mystic tradition, the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ is the void, the presence of absence denoted by the snow that seems to blot out the world by creating one anew. It is the everything out of nothing. The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed. He is aware that he is literally made up of the world that surrounds him—he truly has ‘a mind of winter,’ being a snowman, and knows that his presence in the world is directly affected by that which is outside of him and vice versa. The form and the content of the poem are entreating the reader to stop, pay attention to what they are reading, truly understand every aspect through reanalysis, see what is there and what is not and what is there because it is not there. It is asking you to understand your personal relation to the world and formulate your own opinions accordingly.

Here’s the poem.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.