Thursday, April 24, 2008

Details compiled and what the language keeps saying

"What is the language using us for?" asks W. S. Graham: the theme for the variations he composes at the start of Implements in their Places (1977). There are things the language keeps saying, or perhaps things that our so similar minds express with the blunt tool of the language. But when a poet repeats or echoes these universal tics is it resonance or cliché? In the opening poem of Pleats (1975), Andrew Crozier writes:

held in the direction of home
for the time being
while everything behind us dims

And it captures well something of the pathos and fragility of a homeward journey through failing light, and much depends on those words "everything" and "dims", in which Crozier echoes countless similar formulations: "till all is dim" (Wordsworth), "till all the paths were dim" (Tennyson), "the world grows dim" (Yeats), and so forth.

Crozier breaks free of the language's formulae with the addition of specific details:

a hedgehog in the gutter
a hearse goes by the other way

Crozier's poem reminds me of the fourth and final of Dannie Abse's 'Car journeys' poems from Funland and other poems (1973).

Driving home

Opposing carbeams wash my face.
Such flickerings hypnotise. To keep awake
I listen to the B.B.C. through cracklings
of static, fade-outs under bridges,
to a cool expert who, in lower case,
computes and graphs 'the ecological
disasters that confront the human race.'

Almost immediately (ironically?),
I see blue flashing lights ahead and brake
before a car accordioned, floodlit, men heaving
at a stretcher, an ambulance oddly angled, tame, in wait.
Afterwards, silent, I drive home cautiously
where, late, the eyes of my youngest child
flicker dreamily, and are full of television.

'He's waited up,' his mother says, 'to say goodnight.'
My son smiles briefly. Such emotion! I surprise
myself and him when I hug him tight.

Here Abse's accumulated details of observation serve his telling of a story in a succinct, vivid and emotive way. Everything is focussed on clearly conveying the narrative, distractions are minimized; the almost Martian compact visual image of the 'car accordioned' does not interrupt the fictional dream (to use John Gardner's term). Unfortunately, real life added an unpleasant resonance to this poem: in June 2005 Dannie and his wife of 54 years, Joan Abse, were driving home after a poetry reading when their car was involved in an accident; Joan died at the scene.

But details do not have to be compiled in such a focussed way. John Ashbery's collages of language, despite (or perhaps because of) their non-sequiturs and juxtapositions, the dream-like changes, manage to suggest multiple meanings. And his phrases do lodge in the memory ... "And in the garden, cries and colors" (from 'Last Month' in Rivers and Mountains (1962)).

Eliot - in typically magisterial and somewhat paradoxical mode - wrote: "The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all." Eliot describes here an approach which Christian Wiman has characterized as that of "poets of culmination", as opposed to "poets of observation". Ashbery is far down one end of that spectrum; he takes ordinary emotions, or more particularly the ordinary phrases and turns of phrase that flock and swarm in our ordinary lives, and 'works them up' into new things. In his latest (not counting the selected) A Worldly Country (2007) he piles the phrases up high. Here are some snippets from the poem 'So, Yes' ...

all the stepchildren
it took to get here


It was right to behave as we have done,
he asserts, sending the children on their way
to school, past the graveyard


we're lost in a swamp with coevals
who like us because we like to do things with them.


All this language operates within some sort of force-field, a presiding consciousness, or the perhaps the tutelary spirit of the language. What is the language using us for? So, yes, the language keeps saying the same things, and we ordinary people keep saying the same ordinary things, but the possibilities of combination are endless, and new meanings are always springing to life.

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