“Art does not reproduce what we see—it makes us see.”—Paul Klee
While visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, home of so many major impressionistic paintings, I copied these words of Monet: “Try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own impression of the scene before you.” As a poet, these words have encouraged me to trust in what I see, to push language until it renders external and internal reality in new ways, helping me to discover just what it is I’m perceiving.
Another way of describing this approach is “bare attention,” the Buddhist meditation goal of clearing away projections and expectations of people and things until we come closer to the essence. We need to remove all preconceived notions so we can apprehend the world anew each time we experience it. It’s impossible to follow this principle exactly, but the closer we get, the more challenging our art becomes. We enter the heart of things instead of just replicating familiar, agreed-upon surfaces, the writer as surprised by what she uncovers as the reader. Or to quote Frost, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Eleanor Wilner gives another perspective: “What is troubling about too much of our poetry is that, without aesthetic distance, it remains in the realm of ego, of what we think we know, or what we want or think we ought to see” (48). Art loses something essential when it remains “in the realm of ego” and we avoid the unknown that can shock and awaken us.
Matisse also understood this problem. I’m not sure which volume of The New York Review of Books carried the article, but the reviewer of a Matisse show observes that “…It is as if each time he [Matisse] approached a subject, even a familiar one, he was seeing it for the first time. Or, as he himself said, as if he were seeing ‘with the eyes of a child.’ The ideal that underlies this way of working goes directly back to impressionism, especially to Claude Monet’s notion of the innocent eye” (my emphasis).
I seek poets who seem to possess this innocent eye, who fearlessly extend language and perception, shaking loose some new awareness. Each person has a perspective that can’t be duplicated exactly: no one has quite the same experiences that we do. That’s what I’m after when I read poetry: a unique way of seeing/ex-periencing the world.
Of course, many poets see in a fresh, challenging way. But Susan Howe, Gustaf Sobin, and Cole Swenson have a particular vision and style that I find intriguing. Howe began as a visual artist before she turned to poetry; her work shows this influence. She uses language at times as paint, splattering words onto the page, conscious of them as things in themselves (just as abstract painters see color and paint as a sufficient focus for a painting—the subject matter). Howe draws our attention at times to the surfaces of language, not just its layers of meaning and suggestiveness, revealing new universes of perception. She also uses the whole page as one would a canvas, the composition—the recognition of different planes intersecting as in a painting and an appreciation of foreground and background—appearing to hold as much interest for her as the words themselves. Perhaps more than most poets, Howe exploits the possibilities of placing words on a page, increasing the texture she incorporates into a poem.
In the stuttering title, “There are not leaves enough to crown to cover to crown to cover,” the first section in her long poem The Europe of Trusts, Howe says “Life opens into conceptless perspectives. Language surrounds chaos” (13). Many of her poems embody this idea, the language just barely containing the chaos on the page. Here’s a section from “I. Pearl Harbor”:
GHOST enters WAVES he
from the summit
of a cliff that beckons on or beetles o’er
1 2 3
(Walks all this time by himself saying
he says to me softly—)
The capitalized words (ghost, waves, orisons, magpies, and talkative) function as foreground, standing out from the other words and popping out at the reader, carrying more weight and emphasis. Calling attention to themselves, they alter the music of the poem, giving a much different beat than if they were all lower case. Instead of “ghost enters,” which makes the emphasis equal in both words, we have GHOST enters, shifting the emphasis to ghost.
All of these words are nouns, though waves can cross borders and function as a verb too (in either meaning, “wave” suggests motion), as it does in this instance. Read alone, the capitalized words almost make sense on their own, form their own poem within the poem. The ghost could either be THE famous ghost, Hamlet’s dead father, or it also could be the ghost of the narrator’s father, who was mentioned in the opening part of the book, or both.
At times, it’s ambiguous as to what is happening in the poem. Clearly, the poet isn’t trying to make conventional narrative sense, to tell a story in the usual way. Instead, she shakes up our notions of narrative and the sentence, letting many of the words fly by themselves, their relationship with the ones that precede or follow being uncertain or having multiple possibilities. Charles Bernstein puts it this way:
Not ‘death’ of the referent—rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how ‘reference’ then is not a one-on-one relation to an ‘object’ but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixing a reference at each turn…. (676)
“GHOST enters WAVES he” can be read in several ways. The ghost has entered the water/waves. Or the ghost enters and then waves at someone. Or the poet could just be sketching in a scene, like giving stage directions (in a way, the whole passage reads like stage directions to a drama of the mind): “GHOST enters. Waves.” “He / scatters flowers / from the summit / of a cliff that beckons on or beetles o’er” could be referring to the ghost or to someone else. The referent isn’t clear, and these words might be refusing “the build up of image track/projection.” (Of course, in a long poem, it’s difficult to assume a meaning from just one portion of it.)
What is clear is the potential threat in this situation. We can’t ignore the cliff that’s beckoning, jutting out like a beetled brow. The ghost seems to merge with this cliff, scattering prayers like the flowers from the summit. Wicket gate sounds like “wicked gate,” though it literally suggests a gate within a gate. I think the poet has more interest in the sounds of these words, of giving the impression of magpies chattering (three of them? 1 2 3). If you say “wicked gate” quickly several times and just hear the sounds, it resembles magpies chattering. And what does this gate open onto? Memory? The poet’s well of associations? The gate between the living and the dead?
Where are we and who “is walking by himself saying / he says to me softly—) // What”? In the poem, “What” isn’t a question; it’s a statement. What comes up again on the next page, twice, framing the words “what a few fragments holds us to what “ (the spacing on the page isn’t so linearly narrative as I’ve shown here). Again, by Howe italicizing and positioning “what” in this way, the word’s sound becomes more noticeable, as if these magpies have formed a chorus, “what” being the only utterance they know.
The lines I’ve quoted here seem to be fragments from a child’s memory of the war. This part of the poem starts like a journal entry, Buffalo / 12.7.41, and conveys a specific memory: “(Late afternoon light.) / (Going to meet him in snow.) / HE / (Comes through the hall door.)
As in a play, this chorus of magpies surveys the scene, the poet a magpie who is talkative, talkative, opening the wicket gate of memory and language that opens into another wicket gate, the writer giving us a fresh perspective on all of this. History. The impact of war on a child’s imagination. Felt more deeply because it’s referred to obliquely, the memory almost a ghost of the original experience.
In a very different way, Gustaf Sobin—an American born poet and author who lived in Provence for over 40 years—mines the external world and, to a lesser degree, memory in the following poem:
THE CHEVAL GLASS
swim to her cheeks,
those tossed fires…
shadows, too, drift
into the image, my
in her sleeves….
many cells for that
glowing oval; her
its tapering beaks. (61)
Sobin likes to inhabit the middle of a page in his poems. Many of them flare out from the center, suggesting a desire to claim the whole sheet rather than clinging to the left margin, as so many poems do. However, he exerts tight control over the words, marching them down the interior, unlike Howe’s no-less-controlled but still a looser claim of the whole canvas through unconventional placements of the lines. In fact, this particular poem by Sobin resembles in shape the object of the title, cheval glass being a long mirror that is mounted in a frame so that it can be tilted.
Unlike standard mirrors that are fixed to walls, this one can shift its focus, taking in more or less, depending on its positioning. Here the poet/narrator behaves as the cheval glass, giving the viewer a skewed perspective on the contents of what appears to be a display case in a museum where he and a female companion are viewing two flamingoes from the T’ang dynasty, known for its encouragement and patronage of the arts, especially poetry and ceramics. Just as the poet’s vision can shift, depending on his/her position, so too the contents of this glass case are altered by these two viewers and the narrator’s description of what he’s seeing.
It isn’t clear who or what “glances back- / wards be- / tween the / two / turquoise flamingoes.” It’s tempting to read that “The Cheval Glass” does the glancing since the poet is careful to construct grammatically correct sentences, not sentence fragments, and “Cheval Glass” acts as the subject for what follows. If it is the cheval glass, then the mirror suggests how language mirrors consciousness and also conveys the past, a symbol of the poet trying to capture with words what essentially can’t be captured. Mirrors reveal what is in front of them at the moment, but there are also lingering images of all previous reflections and perhaps future ones. Language and mirror merge into a metaphor.
In the poem, the viewer keeps getting mixed up in the thing viewed, as in the lines “fingers // swim to her cheeks, / fork / through / those tossed fires… / my // shadows, too, drift into the image.” Not only is the narrator’s companion fused now with the flamingo ceramics, but the narrator is part of what’s being viewed and also gets ensnared in his companion’s “sleeves,” just as her “pearls spill, / clicking, // be- / tween / its tapering beaks.” Similarly, it’s impossible for a poet not to leave something of him/herself in the poem or to become entwined with the subject matter. Anything touched by language loses its purity and contaminates the other.
By breaking the two-syllable words “backward” and “between” at their spine, so to speak, Sobin mimics this disjunction he’s narrating of the split in perception, calling attention to how the meanings of the words themselves change when the two parts cease to exist on the same line. They become heightened, emphasized, at the same time as they suggest an alternate meaning, “mirroring” what he’s noticing in the reflections he describes in the poem. Something slips between the syllables, allowing in new connotations and perceptions that traditional narrative can keep out. Even the verbs “swim” and “fork” challenge our perceptions, giving off such opposite connotations, the image of fingers swimming to her cheeks creating a dreamy, unconscious gesture, countered in the next line by the more alert, direct, and swift movement of “fork.” Perhaps the narrator is suggesting that to experience the image he’s describing requires both states of mind, dreamy and attentive.
But a poet can write what resembles conventional narrative and still create the disruption I’ve been describing, as does Cole Swenson, recipient of a Guggenheim who has published over ten poetry collections and as many translations from French works:
“Work in Progress: Dusk,”
Because there is a band playing
in the park the people linger
so their children keep on running,
charcoal smudges going
deeper into the paper
disappearing into the fur
of the dark and then
emerging. Small druids
in their bodies whenever
their parents aren’t watching.
No, just smudges growing
arms and running closer
the way form spreads across canvas
even while the painter is watching. (36)
Something ominous looms over the seemingly innocent scene of families lingering to listen to a band playing in the park. We don’t know what kind of band is playing; nor do we know what kind of music it’s performing. It could be anything from a brass band with horns and drums doing time-honored songs like a Sousa march, to a rock or jazz group. The type of music doesn’t seem to matter: the group becomes a temporary focal point for this scene, binding together the participants. Yet everything remains unspecific here—people, children, park, band, painter. We’re floating in the amorphous world of the general noun, blobs of impressionistic color guiding us rather than clearly delineated forms, acting at a particular place and time. The wonderful and scary thing about such generality is that it isn’t grounding; it isn’t concrete. It forces us to work a little harder as readers and to remain with the uncertainty of not having a tangible situation to react to and with. We’re kept outside the fences of language, the images “charcoal smudges going / deeper into the paper / disappearing into the fur / of the dark and then / emerging.”
These lines speak to me of how a poem can work on us, the paper the poem is printed on like a vast forest and not just the individual tree that produced it, the page having depth and dimension that mirrors our depths. These words we rely on to convey meaning and imagery are elusive, penetrating the dark and at the same time extracting something that darkness contains—what we hope art will do. In this case, the children become “small druids / in their bodies whenever / their parents aren’t watching.” So for a moment the children shift shape, turning into these forces of nature that can lead us into a fuller appreciation of it.
Then they come into focus again, not just smudges, but “growing / arms and running closer.” We can’t hold onto the children any more than we can hold onto the meaning of these words that penetrate the paper and our minds, everything being elusive, out of our control, “the way form spreads across canvas / even while the painter is watching.” We’re helpless to do much more than apprehend, recognizing that anything we try to contain in art or nature will escape our clutches, a reminder that it isn’t only the more “experimental” poets who challenge our perceptions and shake up our expectations, though Cole Swenson’s body of work leans more towards the innovative than the conventional.
The poems I’ve discussed here embody multiple truths, multiple approaches to language, multiple ways of seeing. These poets subvert our usual perceptions, forcing us to view poetry, the world, and ourselves freshly. But the reader also needs an innocent eye and a willingness to embrace many perspectives. Then these poems can fully convey their mysteries.
Bernstein, Charles. “Semblance,” Postmodern American Poetry. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Howe, Susan. The Europe of Trusts. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1990.
Sobin, Gustaf. By the Bias of Sound: Selected Poems: 1974-1994. Jersey City: Talisman House, 1995.
Swenson, Cole. New Math. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
Wilner, Eleanor. “The Closeness of Distance, or Narcissus as Seen by the Lake,” The Writer’s Chronicle. 31.3 (December 1998): 44-48.