Sense and Nonsense Wednesday Workshop 18 August 2021
Iterative Thematic Unity
Iterative thematic imagery is complicated term, used by academics, for a literary device that is really very simple. When the same or similar images are used again and again in a text this is repetition or reiteration, hence iterative. When they are bound thematically or within the associative fields already present in the poetry, then the repetition is said to be thematic. A work’s unity may be found within the three classical unities of time, space, and action, or it may be found within the imagery that links and unites. It seems complex, but it isn’t really.
“Now you are a river flowing silver beneath the moon. High tide in the salt marsh: your body fills with shadow and light. I dip my hands in dappled water.” The key images fall into two categories, (1) water: river / high tide / salt marsh / water and (2) light: silver / moon / shadow and light / dappled. Now the sense of the words becomes clear. You / your body is likened to a river seen in the moonlight. It can be touched: I dip my hands. This adds an extra sensory dimension and the depth of the images is apparent. And no, it is not a simple message, but it can be decoded and enjoyed because now you can make it yours.
Sense and Nonsense
When we talk poetry, what do we mean by sense and nonsense? Let us begin with automatic writing. Automatic writing is nonsense. Put your pen on the paper, do not let it off, write for five minutes, whatever comes into your head. The Surrealists published these thoughts, however distraught and distracted as meaningful poetry. Major poets (Lorca, Paz) have used these techniques to engender metaphors and images. However, they have searched among their subconscious thoughts and have rejected the dross to choose the genuine images that enlighten the inner world.
Sense or nonsense? “Eye of the peacock, / can you touch what I see / when my eyelids close for the night?” Key images: eye > see > eyelids > and these are linked to the eyes of the peacock, as displayed on his feathers, and this links to the ancient tale of the Argos and the Argonauts, and to the person who closes his eyes to sleep for the night, and the sense that we can touch (tactile) when we dream (visual), a mixing of the senses. The straightforward logic of the nightly news? Definitely not. But the logic of the subconscious world, of the dream world as defined by Carl Jung? Definitely. These words contain internal meanings that are different for each one of us. Logical meaning? Definitely not. Internal sensation that may generate ease or unease? Definitely. Sense or nonsense? That will depend upon the readers and how they react not in their logical minds but in that deep-seated region of subconsciousness where all imagery is related to what Carl Jung calls the racial subconscious.
Are there words or ideas here that you do not understand? Names and theories that you do not know? Literature in general and poetry in particular take you to places where you have never been and to places that you might never have thought of visiting. However, these are lands that will open their delights before you, if you deign to open up heart, mind, and eyes, and venture out to explore them. Use your dictionary, your thesaurus, your google search tool, and expand your verbal and linguistic horizons. Poetry is not an advert. It doesn’t sell you anything. But it can and does open new worlds and it encourages you to explore old worlds set within you. It will not persuade, cajole, and limit your mind and your choice, rather it will embolden you and help to open new horizons.
Some days, monkey winds himself up like a clockwork mouse. Other days he rolls over and over with a key in his back like a clockwork cat.
Monkey is growing old and forgetful. He forgets where he has hidden the key, pats his pockets, and slows right down before he eventually finds it and winds himself up again.
One day, monkey leaves the key between his shoulder blades in the middle of his back.
All day long, the temple monkeys play with the key, turning it round and round, and winding monkey’s clockwork, tighter and tighter, until suddenly the mainspring breaks
and monkey slumps at the table no energy, no strength, no stars, no planets, no moon at night, the sun broken fatally down, the clockwork of his universe sapped, and snapped.
Comment: Monkey Temple is A Narrative Fable for Modern Times written in verse. The poems show strong links to Surrealism and Existential Philosophy. They portray the upside-down world of Carnival and out line Monkey’s Theory of the Absurd in a dystopian world that mirrors that of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, LaFontaine’s Fables, the esperpento of Valle-Inclan, and the witty conceptismo of Francisco de Quevedo. This is a walk through the jungle of the Jungian innermost mind. But watch out for those monkeys: they bite.
“I left her by the gate to the Beaver Pond at 2:38. It takes her twenty minutes to walk around the circuit. I always check my watch. Then I know when I can expect her back. In exactly eight minutes, she comes out of the woods and I can see her at the end of the boardwalk. I park the car in a spot from which I can watch her and wave to her. Today, I didn’t see her come out of the woods. It’s the radiation for prostate cancer … it’s left my bowels weak. I had to go to the bathroom … so I turned the car engine on … it was 2:44 … about two minutes before she was due to appear on the boardwalk … yesterday, a Great Blue Heron stood fishing in the pond … he flew when he saw her … a great crack of the wings … but today, the heron wasn’t there … just ducks … they flapped their wings, stood on the water, you know, the way they do, and scattered from the spot where she should have appeared … she walks very quietly, tip-toe, you know … she likes watching the heron and the ducks … she doesn’t like to frighten them … I don’t know what to think … I had to go … it was urgent … so I turned the car around and drove to the nearest bathroom … about one hundred yards away … I was in there … I don’t know … about five minutes … I didn’t check my watch … it’s dark in there … no electricity …besides, between hobbling on my sticks, praying to God to help me to hold on, opening and closing the door, struggling to get my pants down without soiling them …and then I drove back to the picnic tables … and waited … and waited …and she never appeared. I haven’t seen her since … she’s gone missing … I fear the worst … “
On the other end of the phone, a long silence, some heavy breathing, then:
“We’ll file a missing person’s report.”
“You will find her, won’t you? I love her, you know. I must find her. I want to know what’s happened … ” the old man wiped the corner of his right eye with the knuckle of the index finger of his left hand. He coughed and cleared his throat.
“Twenty years younger than you, you said?”
“Yes,” the old man nodded.
“Well, sir: we’ve already started our investigation. We’ll do our best to find her. We’ll contact you as soon as anything turns up.”
The police officer put down the phone and the circuit clicked out.
“What the hell you gonna do?”
“Not me … us.”
“Okay … us then … well … what the hell we gonna do?”
“You tell me. We got her on video. She walked out the other exit, by the park HQ, straight into the arms of the Deputy Police Commissioner. She’s twenty years younger than her husband and her husband’s got the sort of cancer that’s killed his sex life. Cancer? And the Deputy Commissioner’s the one who’s waiting for her? What the hell do you think we’re gonna do?”
Comment The Beaver Pond at Mactaquac is a beautiful place to be, all year round. We love it in summer and fall and Anne Stillwell-Leblanc (< click on link for website) has captured the stillness and silence of the place in the above engraving. As I have become less mobile, so I have sent Clare cantering around the pond to enjoy the beauty we used to enjoy together. Meanwhile, I sit in the car and watch for Clare’s regular appearances through the trees and on the footbridge. As I sit, I write. Sometimes it is journal style, sometimes poetry, and occasionally a short story, like this one.
Thursday is thought day, but what on earth am I thinking about? Well, yesterday I talked about open and closed imagery in poetry. I also talked about direct meaning and indirect meaning. So today’s thought is in Spanish and I have taken it from a poem of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). “En la noche, platinoche, noche que noche nochera.” Sense and nonsense: what on earth does this mean? A literal translation gives us “in the night, silver-night, night which en-night-ens (more?) night”. Sense or nonsense? We shall find out. First, I would like you to read this article: https://moore.lib.unb.ca/Scholteach/platinoche.htm
Quite simply, the article discusses the difference between plain speech and poetic language. However, language has a tendency to simplify itself, to reduce itself downwards. Sentences become shorter. Ideas are simplified. Slogans replace thought. Emotion replaces reason. How and why this happens is a mystery, but I can assure you that it has happened throughout history. Just think of the breakdown from Classical Latin to Vulgar Latin to the various Romance Languages and Dialects that have replaced Latin in the areas where it used to be spoken. Break down, eliminate, simplify.
Thursday’s thoughts: why does this happen? How does it happen? Is it accidental? Is it deliberate? Should we follow meekly along and reduce our own thought and verbal processes? Should we just go gentle into that dark, but simplified, night? Should we resist? How can we resist? The answers to those questions will vary considerably. Each person who takes the time to read this will have a different set of reflections. That said, those answers are important, not just to each one of us as an individual, but also to us human beings as an inter-linked chain in society. All poets, all philosophers, all those who care about language, must reflect deeply on how they can preserve it, care for it, and make it mirror the depths, not of their own education, because not all of us privileged enough to be deeply educated, but our own intelligence. I have lived in places where people neither read nor write. It is so easy to dismiss them as ‘stupid’. I can assure you that they are not ‘stupid’ and to think of them is such is to ignore totally the oral tradition, the wisdom tradition, the cultural traditions from which these people come. We underestimate them at our peril.
What can we do? As poets, we can preserve the traditions and dignity of the depths of meaning, logical, emotional, sub-conscious, that is included in poetry. As writers, we can concentrate on using words with care and attention, of making our meaning clear, of elaborating our thoughts in such a way that others can follow them. As readers, we can look at inner structures, the deeper meaning of words, the emotional forces that try to persuade us, sometimes dishonestly, that this or that is best for us. As human beings we can extend our vocabularies, pay attention to words and their effects, and we can stand up for the linguistic and cultural traditions into which we were born, or in which we have chosen to live.
Now, always with your consent and permission, I will offer you the link to yesterday’s blog post https://rogermoorepoet.com/2021/07/28/22862/ Here you will find, if you choose to click on it, and it is always your choice, a discussion on meaning in language that will run parallel to this one.
Closed and Open Images Wednesday Workshop 28 July 2021
A closed image is one that leads the reader in a specific direction and offers a fixed vision of the world. For example, “White moths wing their snow / storm through the night” (Cage of Flame, below). One summer evening, a long time ago, when I was in Chatham, N.B., now Miramichi City, I saw white moths swarming beneath a street light. The air was thick with them and they circled and dazzled like falling snow. A reader may not catch this image first time through. However, after a couple of readings and a little thought the image makes perfect sense. Now add the personal dimensions. Have you had a similar experience? What associative fields do you structure around white moths > wing > their snow storm >? This is where the image opens up and becomes more personal. You may not have been in Chatham that night, but you may well have experienced something similar.
An open image is one that leads you outwards into your own world. “Now you are a river flowing silver beneath the moon” (Cage of Flame, below). Now the image is more open and asks questions of the reader. Who is the you referred to in the second word? Is it the reader? Is the narrator speaking to a third person? You are a river: how can a person be a river, more, can we be sure this you refers to a person? What else could it refer to? You are flowing silver: there is no sense of concrete meaning here. This is not a piece of information to be processed as you would process a headline in the newspaper (print or digital). What does it mean? I don’t know but, as Salvador Dalí said of one of his own paintings “I don’t know what it means but I know it means something.” And that something is the essence of poetry. That one word, river, will conjure up different images for each individual who reads the poem. River: which river does the poet mean? Is he referring to the Miramichi, the St. John / Wolastoq (Wəlastəkwewiyik means “People of the Beautiful River,” in Maliseet), the Thames / Támesis (to the Spanish who lived in London in 1560-1580), the Severn / Sabrina (to the Romans who invaded Britain in 55-54 BC) that divides Wales from England? And what happens when we restore the old names to the rivers that former generations, some of them our forefathers and foremothers named? How does it change our picture of the permanence of rivers and the impermanence of names and people?
Metaphors are always hard to understand. This is because they have no exact meaning and vary with each reader. Take a metaphor like icy fire. We know that ice can seem to burn the skin, but what does icy fire mean? Think of those drawings in which a vase becomes a face and the face metamorphoses into in a vase. Most people can see each image separately, but it is difficult to hold both shapes in the mind’s eye at the exact same time. The image flits between them with the result that the reader’s determining mind, the one that yearns for le mot juste, the exact meaning of words, is trapped between two mirrors and moves from the one to the other without being able to settle on either. This is what happens with metaphoric meanings: a flickering between the different terms of the metaphor and an inability to settle. Take this couplet, for example: “there is nothing so hot as the female desire, / as cold as new snow yet it burns you like fire” (In Praise of Small Women, El Libro de Buen Amor, Arcipreste de Hita, circa 1283 -1350, my translation). Such metaphors have been around for a long time, as has the juxtaposition between hot and cold, the Petrarchan ice and fire, used as a poet’s description of lovers.
No, poetry is not, definitely not, an exchange of information. It is more an exchange of dreams, cultures, multiple meanings, each constructed, de-constructed, re-constructed in the space between the minds of reader and writer. A poetry book is very similar to a river. You must take it on its own terms, adapt to it, work with it, run your fingers and hands in its waters, paddle in it, swim if you want to. You must do all of this on your own terms and in your own way. Whatever you do, don’t, don’t get out of your depth. And please, please, don’t let yourself drown. Just lay back on the water, look at the clouds in the sky, choose the ones you want to follow, and float a few minutes of the day away.
Roman Armies, men and words, were structured, highly structured. Poetic structure can take many forms: external structure, the sonnet, for example, with its 14 lines and its 4+4+3+3 verse form which can also be 4+4+4+2 or 5+5+4, or 5+4+5 or 2 x 7 or 3+3+3+3+2. I have experimented with all of these sonnet forms, and many more, at one stage or another in The Nature of Art. Milton Acorn, the Governor-General’s Poetry Award Winner for poetry, wrote a book called Jackpine Sonnets. His Jackpine Sonnets are wild and beautiful, growing this way and that, totally individual and out of shape, just like wind-swept jackpines of Tara Manor in St. Andrews on the East Coast of New Brunswick, Canada, where I penned some of these poems.
In the same way that poems can be given a formal structure, so can lines. Structure can be external, flowing from line to line in an unbroken sequence, or it can be internal, limited to each line. Some of my poems include stanzas where the individual line flows into the stanza and the result is an amalgamation of both the individual and the whole. Individual lines can be structured by syllable count, 10, 11, 12 or more per line. They can also be structured by stress, the stress of normal speech or the stress of forced rhythm. Structures can have Greek or Latin names, English ones too. Or it can be the structure of simple, everyday speech. Fray Luis de León, (1527-1591) wrote that he counted his syllables when he spoke and he wrote prose and poetry the same way he spoke. Syllables, a strange term nowadays, not understood by all. Try the ‘beat’ of music: “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) or “All you need is love,” (Beatles). Simple really, but it is all too easy to complicate these concepts.
Comment: Clearly this is a simplification of what can be an intensely scientific and academic subject. We have only to think of the books of rhetoric, with their long lists of Greek names for the different syllables, long and short, and the different line lengths that run from Iambic Pentameter to Hymns Ancient and Modern. However, the purpose of these thoughts is to simplify and not to complicate. More important, perhaps, rhythm, in one form or another is akin to structure and many of us have an innate sense of verbal rhythm, whether we count our syllables on our fingers, as I do, or count them not, as is the modern trend in some poets. Think daisy petals: she loves me, she loves me not, I count them, I count them not. Yet still the rhythm is there and that, in many ways, is one of the key secrets of our unique poetic voices: we all speak and write in different fashions and that is one of the things that makes us unique.
The Musicality of Words Wednesday Workshop Bastille Day 14 July 2021
The Roman armies marched all over Europe and, as they marched, they sang marching songs, traces of which lingered, along with the Latin language, everywhere they went. Think of the poems in his book as songs, each with its own special rhythm. You can find music in a single word, in a group of words, in a single line. You can hear and feel it too when you follow the punctuation and move with the words across adjoining lines. Unfortunately, far too many of us have become used to slogans and advertisements: three words repeated incessantly, two verses of a song that loop continuously. Many of us have forgotten how to read anything other than newspaper headlines and simple sentences. We have also forgotten how to listen to words, how to gain multiple meanings beyond the simplistic message of slogan, sound byte, scandal, and news. Diversity of meaning is what you learn when you read poetry, for poetry is more, much more, than the delivering of a simple message. To read a poem is to set out on a personal journey of exploration, into your own memories and mind, as mediated by the poet’s words. It is also to explore the vast treasure trove of our personal relationship with our language. Remember: a poetry book is a dream you hold in your hands.
Comment: Words have meaning, but they also have music and the musicality of meaning must never be forgotten for when music an meaning combine, a new set of meanings is formed that depend as much upon the ear as they do upon the decoding mind. This is all a part of what we refer to as the poet’s voice and remember this style of poetry is not to be found in newspaper headlines nor on the radio and television news, scaled down as they are to the lowest common denominators of language.
Look carefully at the painting that heads this Wednesday Workshop. Look at the movement and the musicality of linked forms and colors in a still, silent, two-dimensional space. Meaning takes on different meanings and becomes something different when we look at these words of color, these soundless sounds, these rhythmical movements of color. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed it is, and in poetry, it is also in the musicality of the words and the flow of the ideas that bind the words and change their meanings.