This is another academic word that has a simple meaning. In essence, it means texts talking to texts. Quevedo (1580-1645) writes ‘escucho con mis ojos a los muertos’ / ‘I listen with my eyes to dead men.’ He is suggesting that, each time we read a text written by another person we enter into a dialog with that text and that author. His metaphoric conversations with the writings of the long-dead Seneca become intertextual the moment he put pen to paper and wrote about them.
This intertextuality is a key component of my writing. You may not recognize all the phrases that I have used previously by other writers. I do. Some other readers will. Just take, as an example, the titles of some of my earlier books. The title of Broken Ghosts(Goose Lane, 1986) comes from these lines penned by the Swansea poet, Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). ‘Light breaks where no sun shines; / where no sea runs, the waters of the heart / push in their tides; and, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads, the things of light / file through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.” Stars at Elbow and Foot, the title of my Selected Poems (Cyberwit.net, 2021) was also inspired by one of Dylan Thomas’s poems. “And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one with the man in the wind and the west moon; when their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, they shall have stars at elbow and foot.” The title of Though Lovers Be Lost (Kindle, 2016) also comes from this same poem, one of my favorites, obviously.
Sometimes readers are aware of these intertextual clues that I sow throughout my poems. Sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. There is a resonance in such chosen words and that resonance is there, irrespective of whether you are aware of the word-source or not. That said, the recognition and acknowledgement of intertextual relationships expands the poetic meanings of the creative world even further. It also establishes verbal links between author and author, epoch and epoch, genre and genre, thus establishing a wider intertextual network and a stronger chain of linked literary thoughts and meanings. In our creative journeys, we rarely walk alone, whether we are aware of it, or not.
The art of writing poetry about paintings is known as ekphrasis – which basically just means a verbal description of a visual work of art, whether it’s real or imaginary. The conversion of the visible (painting) to the printed page (verbal) is another link in the great chain of intertextuality, for paintings, too, are narratives with a different form of text. Other component parts are audible to verbal (alliteration, onomatopoeia), touch and feel (tactile) to verbal (as in synesthesia or the mixing of the senses) and the transfer of taste to verbal forms. Many of these transitions and transformations are present, not only in my own poetry, but in surrealism (verbal and visual) as well.
Everywhere the afternoon gropes steadily to night. Some people have built fires, others read by candlelight.
Geese, drifts of snow their whiteness, settle on the riverbank. They walk on thin ice at civilization’s edge. Around them, the universe’s clock ticks slowly down.
Who forced that scream through the needle’s eye? Inverted, the Big Dipper, hangs its question mark from heaven’s dark eyelid.
Ghosts of departed constellations stalk the sky. Pale stars bob phosphorescent on the flood.
The flesh that bonds, the bones that walk, the shoulders and waist on which I hang my clothes, now they stand alone and listen at the water’s edge to the whispering trees.
They have caught the words of snowflakes strung between the stars. Moonlight is a liquor running raw within them.
Comment: The verse version (above) is from Though Lover’s be Lost. The prose version (Below) is from Stars at Elbow and Foot.
Building on Sand
Everywhere the afternoon gropes steadily to night. Some people have built fires, others read by candlelight. Geese, drifts of snow their whiteness, settle on the riverbank. They walk on thin ice at civilization’s edge. Around them, the universe’s clock ticks slowly down. Who forced that scream through the needle’s eye? Inverted, the Big Dipper, hangs its question mark from heaven’s dark eyelid. Ghosts of departed constellations stalk the sky. Pale stars bob phosphorescent on the flood. The flesh that bonds, the bones that walk, the shoulders and waist on which I hang my clothes, now they stand alone and listen at the water’s edge to the whispering trees. They have caught the words of snowflakes strung between the stars. Moonlight is a liquor running raw within them.
Clarity is essential now: the cycle of seasons, the will and willingness to change. Nothing can alter this flow: rain and river, pond and sea, the moon pull of the tide. Each half-truth glimpsed through the helmet’s slotted visor as we charge in the lists, knee against knee, spear against spear, knight against knight. On the shore at the earth’s edge, a new planet mapped in miniature: each grain of sand, a speck of dust, light upon the palm, yet the whole beach, in unison, weighing us up, weighting us down. This world, immanent, renascent, growing more solid through its thinning veil of mist. Freckled the water, as the wild man sculls towards us, over the waves, over the sand, a fisher of what kind of men? Was he without guilt, he who cast that first stone? The pond’s water-mask, reconfigures in ever-widening circles traveling who knows where to lap at an unseen shore. Light bends like a reed; liquid are the letters dancing, distorted, on speckled waters and the white sand undulating under the rising waves.
Comment: So this is the messenger, and what now is the message? And who or what do we believe? And why should we believe it? Better by far, say some, to bury our heads in the sand and to pretend to be unaware, uncaring about all that is going on around us. Why worry about what we cannot change? Just let it be. But not all people think that way. And, unfortunately, not all people think. I do. But I am beginning to think that I am one of the few who does think. And not only that, I think I am getting out of step with the world around me. Yes, I know the Spanish saying: “in the Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king”. I am neither blind, nor one-eyed, nor am I a king, nor a king-maker. More than anything, I think I am an anarchist ant!
Monkey Meets an Anarchist Ant Memories of El Camino de Santiago
The anarchist ant is dressed in black. He has a little red base-ball cap worn backwards on his head.
His eyes are fiery coals. “Phooey!” He says. “It’s folly to go with the flow.” so he turns his back on his companions and marches in the other direction.
Some ants call him a fool. The Ant Police try to turn him.
The Ant Police try to turn him. The Thought Police try to make him change his mind.
Others, in blind obedience to a thwarted, intolerant authority, first bully him, then beat him, then bite him till he’s dead.
Black umbrellas burgeon beneath sudden rain. Waterproof cloth opens to provide protection. Churches fill with defenseless passersby.
The cigarettes they smoke flare shooting stars through finger bars of flesh and bone. After the rain, gypsy women flower in the street.
Carnations carve wounds in their sleek, oiled hair. They offer good luck charms and fortune telling.
“Federico! Federico,” the gypsies cry out, “tomorrow, the guards will take you from your cell. They will drive you to the hills and shoot you dead.”
“Tonight,” Federico replies, “I’ll paint the city red. And tomorrow… ” “Tomorrow,” the gypsies sigh, “the Alhambra’s walls will run red with your blood.”
Comment: I have made some minor changes to the sonnet that was published in Iberian Interludes (available online at this link) The sonnet is a Golden Oldie, going back to our visit to Granada in 1986. I asked my pre-teenage daughter if she would like to go to a country where there was no snow in winter. She laughed at me. “Don’t be so silly, dad, there’s no such thing as a winter without snow.” We got to Madrid on January 5 and awoke to 3 inches of snow on January 6. “There, dad,” she said. “Told you so.” We took the train down to Granada and that year they had six inches of snow in the city center, for the first time in forty years! It also rained, and this is a poem about the Granada rain.
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.
Words are formed from a combination of letters and sounds. Join them together and they will march like Roman soldiers, in groups of meaning. A cohort, ten words, ten men, commanded by a Decurion. One hundred words, a century, commanded by a Centurion. Six thousand words, a legion with six thousand possible implications attached. I use the image of the Roman Legion because meanings in poetry are Legion and our Western Poetry tradition, of which I am a part, goes back more than two thousand years to Roman times and beyond. Tolle, lege: Latin for take and read. Sortes Virgilianae: fortune telling by chance words drawn, originally, from Virgil’s Aeneid and now from this poetry book. Choose your words and sentences at random. Interpret them as you will.
While each word has an individual dictionary meaning, words are much more powerful than the dictionary. Each word is surrounded by a network of associations, called an associative field, and those connections are different for every reader. This means that each word and its associative field have very personal emotional strings attached. When you understand this, you will also understand that each reading, each interpretation, is your own and nobody else’s. This is not a grade school classroom. Here, there are no poetry thought police to tell you that you are wrong, that you are mistaken, that you do not understand what the teacher is telling you.
Take the word ‘grandmother’. The dictionary meaning is clear. Your grandmother is the mother of your father or the mother of your mother. Each of us has, if we are lucky, two grandmothers. Some of us have more than two. The emotional ties between you, as reader, and your own ‘grandmother(s)’ will determine your own personal version of the word’s emotional and poetic tones. Now you must apply these individual meanings to each word you read. Reading poetry in this fashion will allow you to create your own personal world of tone, meaning, associations, and emotions. This is what poetry brings to you, not a handful of information to be scanned for knowledge, but a series of sights, sounds, memories, all personal, that are triggered in your mind by the impact of the poet’s words.
Comment:Wednesday Workshops are my attempt to express some of my ideas and theories on writing in general and on poetry in particular. Hopefully, the will encourage other writers to think about their writing and to deepen their knowledge and understanding of what we do best: think and write. By all means add your own thoughts to what I have written here.