The Cortland Review


Richard Jackson
  "Language-Driven Poetry: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PRINCIPLE OF GENERATING POEMS" begins with Dante and Petrarch and walks us through poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Robert Frost, Andre Breton, Cesare Pavese, Richard Wilbur, Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, all the way to Heather McHugh to demonstrate that the imaginative vision possible to us through poetry exists not in the dressing up of ideas, feelings or events that the poet tries to find words to describe, but in its exploration of language, "not merely a record, but a gesture always trying to escape itself, escape our human condition towards something universal�"

Richard Jackson

"Place Message Here",
"Letter From Slovenia",
"Letter From Tuscany",
"Letter to Stern From Arezzo",
and "If I Can't Love You", all new poems by Richard Jackson

Robert Bly

An interview by Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, a special audio program of The Paula Gordon Show.

Christian Wiman
"A Darker Shade of Grey: Christian Wiman�s Hard Night," a review by Chelsea Rathburn points to Wiman�s work as expression of the poet�s awesome responsibility to the power of language. "What words or harder gift/ does the light require of me," Wiman writes, "carving from the dark/ this difficult tree?"
HARD NIGHT Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Richard Jackson

Richard JacksonRichard Jackson is the author of 9 books of poems, most recently Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland Poetry Press, 2003), Heartwall (University of Massachusetts, 2000), winner of the Juniper Prize, Svetovi Narazen (Slovenia, 2001), a limited edition small press book, Falling Stars: A Collection of Monologues (Flagpond Press, 2002) and Richard Jackson: Greatest Hits (2004). His own poems have been translated into a dozen languages. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry: The Fire Under the Moon and Double Vision: Four Slovenian Poets (Aleph, 1993), is editor of Poetry Miscellany and Mala Revija, a journal of Slovene culture and literature as well as an eastern Europoean Chapbook Series. The author of a book of criticism, The Dismantling of Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews With Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award), he has had essays and reviews in Georgia Review, Verse, Contemporary Literature, Boundary 2, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner aamong numerous journals and anthologies. In 2000 he received the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans, awarded by the President of Slovenia. He has Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, Witter-Bynner and Fulbright Fellowships, 5 Pushcart Prizes and awards for excellence in teaching from UT-Chattanooga and Vermont College's M.F.A. program.

Richard Jackson - Language-Driven Poetry



You have to imagine Dante, having escaped the horrors of the Inferno, as he stands on the shore of Purgatorio, still somewhat overconfident and still somewhat confused. After all, he has just come from the bottom of Hell where time and space seem reversed, just passed Satan's dungeon tomb, has just looked Satan in the eye and had become "chilled and faint." Now, beside the huge mountain blown out of the land by Satan's fall, a bright light comes across the waters. That winding mountain of repentence seems impossible to climb. The light turns out to be an angel who pilots a ship of souls who have made it this far. When they disembark Dante recognizes a friend, Casella, a musician, and asks him for a song. What Casella sings holds everyone enthralled: "Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona" ("Love that speaks to me from inside my mind"). And why shouldn't Dante be enthralled by the song? After all, he wrote it and did a whole analysis of it in his Convivio. The point is, Dante is enthralled by the sound of his own words and gets distracted from his purpose, and this distraction is what generates the poem. It doesn't take long for Cato, the stern taskmaster of the place, to berate them all, and everyone scatters "like a flock of pigeons," the simile, especially in contrast to the noble wings of the angel, suggesting something about their lowliness and chaotic disorganization.

The scene is a characteristic one in the Commedia for Dante the poet once again satirizes Dante the pilgrim and main character of the poem for missing the point of the poem and getting enthralled with the sounds of words—whether they are of adulturers he mistakes for pure lovers as in the case of Paolo and Francesca, or irresponsible wanderers he mistakes for adventurers as in the case of Ulysses. About 500 years later another poet, Wordsworth, finds himself in a similar predicament in his poem "Resolution and Independence." Here's the scene: he's out walking one morning in the calm woods just after a violent night storm, and he's refreshed, ready to notice everything; he's put aside all memory of "the ways of men, so vain and melancholy" and is just going to observe. In the space of another stanza (IV), though, he's gotten depressed: "As high as we have mounted in delight / In our dejection do we sink as low." Then he's happy the next stanza, then sad the next. Why? He starts to think of "Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty." Then he follows the language of this wildly out-of-control manic-depressive self into a state where he remembers Chatterton, the boy suicide poet and ends up with the most melancholy lines of the poem: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness" (VII).

If those lines sound a little posed, if the rhymes jangle hopelessly, then I think you have heard it correctly. Think of what's happened: the poem has vascillated between storm and calm, joy and sorrow, clarity and madness, and through it all the sensitive poet himself keeps us reminded of how much he feels: he feels, he says, because he is a sensitive, feeling, observing poet of deep emotion and sudden attentiveness to the world around him. But then what happens to our sensitive poet? He sees a man he first mistakes for a stone (IX) and then a sea beast. We might believe the stone, though not from such an observant and feeling poet, but a sea-beast in the middle of the forest? Not! Okay, so he describes the man, tells him, in contradiction to what he was just moaning about that the day promises to be "glorious," then asks him what he does for a living. As soon as the leech gatherer starts to speak, Wordsworth notices the quality of his voice and style, only that he gathers leeches, then gets completely lost in the sound of the man's voice and loses track of the content in stanza XVI: "But now his voice to me was like a stream / Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide." In the next stanza he has to ask the man again what he does because he didn't hear a thing, and the man just smiles and repeats his story. What does Wordsworth do? He again gets carried away by the sound of the speech and imagines the man walking around the moor. At the end he praises the leech gatherer's firm mind and vows he'll always remember him. It wasn't the content of the man's speech, after all, but what the sounds of that speech led him to imagine, that becomes so important.

So what is he going to remember? He hasn't heard a thing. On the one hand, this is Wordsworth making fun of his own memory poems, his own senstivity as a poet, his sort of mindless enjoyment of the sound of words. On the other hand, the firmness of the leech gatherer contrasts with the vascillation of Wordsworth, and the leech gatherer does suggest the qualities of humility, satisfaction with the solitary self—resolution and independence—that the poet sometimes lacks. In fact, he himself is like the leech gatherer whom he described earlier in the poem as like a "cloud" which "heareth not the loud winds when they call." So what has happened here? The poem fails to do what it sets out to do and what it says it does on the thematic surface, and the satire is directed at actions on that level of memory and meaning. But the poem gathers something implicit in the resonance of images and echoes of observation, that is, in the undercurrents and flow of the language itself almost unknown to Wordsworth the character but certainly the main point of the poem of Wordsworth the poet. In other words, the real action of the poem is the action of the language that operates, one might say, in spite of the will of the character Wordsworth and as part of the imagination of Wordsworth the poet. In the end, the poem is both warning about the power of language and its music to mislead us and describing its essential qualities in poetry as precisely that desire and ability to mislead from our original and originating intentions. What the language does, in fact, is discover what the conscious mind could not see, but only sense, through the imagination. In his note to "The Thorn," Wordsworth clearly understands this essential power of language as sound and as physical thing as opposed to meaning and representation when he writes about "the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols, but as things, active and efficient, which are themselves part of the passion."

The Wordsworthian scene can also be explained by referring to Lacanaian psychoanalysis. Lacan's most acute apologist today is probably the Slovene philosopher-political scientist-critic, Slavoj Zizek: "When Lacan says that the last support of what we call 'reality' is 'fantasy,' this is definitely not to be understood in the sense that 'life is just a dream....' The Lacanaian thesis is, on the contrary, that there is always a hard kernel, a leftover which persists and cannot be reduced to a universal." This 'surplus' of fantasy, of imagination, is what drives us to create the Real, a kind of construct upon which we base our everyday reality. Similarly, the poet's imagination, creating (as we will see in a poet like Breton or Szymborska below) an excess of associations through the play of language, creates a kind of metaphoric world that is actually the basis for understanding the 'reality' around us. It is, for Lacan, language itself, specifically the primacy of metaphor within language, that drives this play. The "meaning" of a poem as it is understood by so many misguided teachers is what he would call the point de caption—a kind of button, to continue the metaphor, in a quilt of possible meanings. What the poet is interested in is the quilt, the fabric, the weave as a process to follow in itself: it suggests a rich array of possibilities, a kind of fluidity of meanings—though not totally out of control since they are limited by the shape and fabric of the quilt. What the critic looks for—and some beginning writers—and some writers who don't know 'what to write about'—is the point, a way to nail down the meaning and intention. According to Zisek and Lacan, the meaning is always something to be explored, like a 'symptom,' something that leads back to a rich source of causes.

"...what in the vernacular is called the voice of the Muse is, in reality, the dictate of language."
Joseph Brodsky

The idea that the sound of words can mislead the poet runs throughout Dante's Commedia, of course, and indeed it is an idea that derives from classical times, extends throughout the Renaissance, through the Romantics as we have seen with Wordsworth, and even down to our own day. In fact, in La Vita Nuova (XXV), Dante asks several of Beatrice's friends how his poems measure up, and they tell him the poems are awful because they fail to communicate his love—that their content is deficient. But behind that idea is also the notion that language itself, its pure sound, is what leads the poet on a journey of discovery about what he or she has to say in the first place, and that the failure is one of the music of language. Later in Purgatorio, he discusses his own new style of writing ("novo stile") with a poet from Lucca (Canto XXIV), a style he developed in reaction to that criticism in La Vita Nuova, and says that his language is now dictated by Love, that he merely finds a form for the language always already "dictated" to him by Love, to which the other poet replies that his own verse is too considered and planned. In our own day, Joseph Brodsky echoes this same idea when he writes:"what in the vernacular is called the voice of the Muse is, in reality, the dictate of language." And he goes on:"One who writes a poem writes it because the language prompts, or simply dictates, the next line. Beginning a poem, the poet as a rule doesn't know the way it is going to come out; and at times he is very surprised by the way it turns out, since...often his thought carries him further than he reckoned." This idea echoes what Richard Hugo talks about in The Triggering Town when he describes the 'triggering' subject as one that, for the poet, must be subverted by the "sound of words" that carries the poet and poem in unanticipated directions.

"...there is a tendency for poems to be primarily idea-driven or language-driven, and... the best poems are language-driven, and the others tend to become propaganda, confession, or therapy."

It is not a question here of arguing that poems are only about language, as some of the language poets argue, or that poems are most important for their themes as someone like Emerson tended to do. The point is simply that there is a tendency for poems to be primarily idea-driven or language- driven, and that the best poems are language-driven, and the others tend to become propaganda, confession, or therapy. That does not mean that poems are best when they eschew ideas, only that the ideas in the better poems arise out of a play of language. In fact, without ideas poems would be only meaningless sound. As Seamus Heaney has written in The Redress Of Poetry: "Poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things of this world." On the other hand, I suppose one could characterize the typical idea-driven poem as one in which the connections and transitions are based upon links of concepts as in an essay, that they tend to rely on simply reporting memory in a rather unedited fashion, that they tend towards journalism, that the details are in the poem simply because they happened and not for any structural artistic reason, that the ultimate point of the poem tends to be that these things are important because they happened or happened to me and not because they have been transformed by language into a newly discovered whole. These poems I have in mind to criticize are poems of memory rather than imagination, of clich� rather than invention, narratives of past events rather than visions of possibility in language. They are static poems that report sensibility rather than poems of process that enact it.

"...when I read a poem, I care about the characters and events and ideas not because they happened but because an original and fresh engagement with language has led me to involve my own imagination with the play of metaphors and figures, syntax and rhythms, and that involvement has drawn me into the consciousness of the speaker, and so into her or his concerns."

The truth of the matter is that when I read a poem, I care about the characters and events and ideas not because they happened but because an original and fresh engagement with language has led me to involve my own imagination with the play of metaphors and figures, syntax and rhythms, and that involvement has drawn me into the consciousness of the speaker, and so into her or his concerns. When I read Dante I can do so with great pleasure though I disagree with much of the static dogma lurking behind it because the language involves me in a process of thinking and feeling where I can experience the doubts, hesitations, assertions, beliefs, suspicions, hopes and desires of his whole being as he faces a terrifying and bewildering set of events. As Earl Wasserman writes in The Subtler Language, what I have called an idea-driven poem "directs us as modestly as possible to something outside itself," while language-driven poetry is real poetry "in which reference values are assimilated into the constitutive act of language; its primary purpose is to trap us in itself as an independent reality." So, for example, I can read Canto V of the Inferno and while I might disagree with the idea of having Minos assign the souls their places, and perhaps disagree in principle with the harsh sentence given to the adulterers, Paolo and Francesca, or to the idea of Hell in general, I can take delight in the way Dante the pilgrim is gradually seduced by language, and seduces us, and so the way in which Dante the poet must also have been seduced. At first he appropriately compares damned souls to starlings, ugly little pests of birds, then more dubiously to cranes, more graceful but not exactly noble, and then to doves, unbelievably and ironically an image of grace: the gradually better-sounding similes put him in a faulty frame of mind that leads him to hear only the beautiful song of Francesca with its repeated and insistent "Amor." He is led to condone their sin that caused so much heartbreak in the same way the birds seem led along with their passive verbs: literally "borne," "driven," and "brought." The beauty and structure of the language in the Canto has carried the pilgrim—and the reader—to the point where we can understand how easy such a sin might be, how near own own fall into hell might be. This has happened because I as a reader have been caught up in an "independent reality" that is made up by certain vocabulary, rhythm and syntax that has discovered new relationships that I find interesting, original, and so challenging, engaging, involving. And I have been made aware of the danger of that lure of language, especially as Dante faints at the end abruptly pulling the rug out from under my experience, as well as the necessity of having language generate this imaginative action.

Talking about the Inferno has its limitations here because there is always the huge split between Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, with most of the attention going to the pilgrim, and my aim here is to try to describe the experience of writing from the poet's point of view. What happens when we turn to a lyric poem of Dante? The third poem in the Convivio, mentioned earlier, provides a clue. The Canzone begins:

Love that speaks to me from inside my mind,
with chaotic mindless passion for my lady,
causes me to think of her in such a way
that my thoughts are diverted like the wind.
Love's speech is filled with sounds so blind
and sweet that my soul, which senses what he says,
exclaims: I no longer have the power or the way
to speak what I hear about my passion.

What happens here is that the inner language he hears is almost beyond his comprehension, and seemingly beyond his expression, yet it has a power, a reality, as Wasserman would say, of its own. He then goes on to suggest he will try to follow this language and "say in words the things that love can say." The poem then goes in to build an additive and intensifying structure moving from simple and obvious metaphors to more abstract and transcendental ones, from a concrete image of the sun to the God it suggests to the bliss his existence suggests to the "celestial virtue" that is behind that and the people who would enjoy it to a vision of Paradise—a string of metaphors that tumble along a little path of linguistic connections in the Italian. But the language and the metaphors have gotten away from him—from his original view of their limitations—and in the last stanza he has to stop and address the poem:

Canzone, it seems that you speak something contrary
to the speech that a sister muse of yours has said;
because this lady, that you have made into some humble maid,
she calls proud, and calls disdainful of any love.

Dante gets around the discrepancy between the muses of Love and History by suggesting that history has only seen his beloved lady in a subjective way, and he ends up siding with language and imagination over fact, for he tells the poem to go on, if apologetically, and continue to sing the lady's praises, continue to follow wherever the metaphors take it. The powerless language he sensed in stanza one has become a reality of its own: the poem finally, enacts, and is as much about this power of language as it is about love. I am reminded here of Wordsworth's notion in his "Essay on Epitaphs, III:"

Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts. If words be not (recurring to a metaphor before used) an incarnation of the thought but only a clothing for it, then surely will they prove an ill gift; such a one as those poisoned vestments, read of in stories of superstitious times, which had power to consume and alienate from his right mind the victim who put them on. Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve.

What Dante, like Wordsworth, resists here is the notion that language only dresses up our words, that we have an idea or feeling or event that we then try to find words to describe. It is a fairly common assumption, especially among beginning writers and critics, but one that leads to a static gaze rather than an imaginative vision, that leads to language as a counter-spirit that works against us when we do not follow its impulses wherever they may lead, even as in the case, here, of Dante, to a vision of his beloved much at odds with his experience of her.

"...the notion that language only dresses up our words, that we have an idea or feeling or event that we then try to find words to a fairly common assumption, especially among beginning writers and critics, but one that leads to a static gaze rather than an imaginative vision..."

A generation later, writing a more earthy and diverse love poetry, Petrarch's scattered rhymes ("rime sparse"), that seem less intent on achieving some conscious aim and so have less of the tension between thematic intent and linguistic variance. For Petrarch, the creative tension lies in the very notion of possibility, for his world, especially at the height of the Black Death, is filled with uncertainty, with shifting shapes and forms of feeling and idea, and so he creates a "shifting style" ("vario stile") to deal with the metamorphic world that confronts him and his beloved Laura. Where Dante seems worried about the tension between intent and final meaning, Petrarch revels in it. His Rime 73, a canzone, is a good example. Desire for the calming effects of love forces him so speak, he says, but more than that, speech itself pushes him forward, enlightens him, and he "melts in the sound of his own words like a man of ice in the sun." However, this speech undercuts his original hope for repose and calm, and he is carried away to "continue these amorous notes." At least these words of love will lead to pity, he suggests, and he goes on to explore an image for Laura's eyes. Finally, near the end, he suggests that if Love would loosen his tongue, he could say things so strange and wondrous that they would make the listener weep. He is no longer, he says, what he was at the beginning of the poem, for the wounds of love he has discovered where he hoped to find soothing effects have, in a sense, killed him, destroyed his former self. What he has discovered is the power of the poem to bring him to a realm almost beyond language. In the end, while he may be emotionally exhausted from speaking with the beloved, and while he ironically thinks of the painful talk as "sweet," he is still willing to speak with language itself which has led him towards this self discovery. In his letter to his friend Tomasso da Messina, Petrarch writes: be careful not to let any of those things that you have plucked remain with you too long, for the bees would enjoy no glory if they did not transform those things they found into something that was better." Petrarch is the opportunist of the imagination, ready to use his shifting style to change course, to abandon his original ideas. His poems are always acts of discovery.

Even when he acknowledges some tension between intent and what language delivers, his tone is more adaptable than Dante's. His poem XLIX ("To His Words") is a good example for, instead of bemoaning his fate, he castigates and accuses his own language only in the end to suggest that there is a solution in the language of the poem that lies, beyond language, in sight and vision, in the unspoken:

I'm fed up with guarding the vague borders
your meanings desert for lies, my ungrateful words,
and still you begin your campaigns to try to purge
all emotion from my love, bringing me shame and surrender;
the more I send messengers to regain my honor
the more your envois seem detained, or lured
to some greater meanings, or have their senses blurred,
letters stolen, visions lost in the labyrinths of some dreamer.
My tears can't hear commands to make them halt,
but march on, picking up stray syllables along the way
or hiding in the roadside bushes in times of peace—
and these famous sighs, they mope around the tents, play
cards or dice with the malcontents always ready to find fault—
only my eyes have phrases the heart can read and sieze.

What Petrarch is getting at is a language beyond language: for him, the language of poetry is always in the impossible position of trying to say something beyond itself, and, ironically, it can only do so by exploring itself. This is precisely the situation Dante describes in Paradiso XXVI when Adam first speaks to him:

Sometimes an animal will tremble in its skin
and thus reveal its feelings from within
as he moves his own cover from inside.

And a little bit later Dante experiences the same sense of the physicality of language itself, language and words as stuff, as texture, as beyond rational meaning, when he tries to describe his final vision of God: "my words have no more strength than does a babe / wetting its tongue, still at its mother's breast." Curiously, what he has to do is forget, not simply because memory fails or his tongue "lacks eloquence" to report what he saw, or that each instant brings "more forgetfulness,"—the reason is that memory, the static past, interferes with imagination, vision, with his and our re-experiencing of the vision. He is, he says, like the "geometer trying to square the circle." All metaphors necessarily fail.

It is at this point, too, that we can begin to understand what Dante and Petrarch have been getting at in describing the language of poetry: the meaning, the experience of poetry is the very process of poetry, the struggle of language to discover what is buried within itself rather than to simply report what happened to the poet or what he or she thought or felt. Poetry is a language of discovery and transformation, not simply of "witness." Brodsky describes this when he writes that the experience of poetry for the poet involves "the sensation of coming into direct contact with language, or more precisely, the sensation of immediately falling into dependence on it, on everything that has already been uttered, written, accomplished in it." This certainly explains why Dante, for instance, in La Vita Nuova, a little book that traces his love for Beatrice from physical to spiritual with a few backslidings along the way, intersperses the poems with commentaries on their structure, a diversion on language and metaphor, and why he generally pays more attention, finally, to the poetics of the poems rather than their themes (though most teachers today teach the poems only as themes divorced from the prose and not what the prose is trying to draw attention to, the primacy of language as a structure of thought).

"Poetry is the language of discovery and transformation, not simply of 'witness.'"

In our own age, Robert Frost is one of the poets who has articulated this aspect of language most clearly. One apocryphal story has Edward Thomas, the English poet, and Frost walking through the countryside: Frost shouts to a farmer in a distant field who cannot hear his words, and the farmer shouts back. Frost then tells Thomas that "the cadence of the answer was as clear as that of the question." For Frost, the "tones, pauses and rushes and intensities of sound are more revealing than the definition value of the words." In fact, Frost goes on to assert that "the sentence sound often says more than the words. It may even, as in irony, convey a meaning opposite to the words. I shall show the sentence sound saying all that the sentence conveys with little or no help from the meaning of the words." His own poem, "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same," actually a love poem to his mistress, Kay Morrison, enacts this notion. Frost describes, from Adam's point of view, how the birds, "hearing the daylong voice of Eve," have "added to their own an oversound, / Her tone of meaning but without the words." More than that her very being, given by that sound, that "tone of meaning," is "in their song" and "persists" into the surrounding "woods."

"...tones, pauses and rushes and intensities of sound are more revealing than the definition value of the words."
Robert Frost

Sound as being, sound as self: it is language here as gesture and music that creates its own lasting reality: "Never again would birds' song be the same," and never again would Eve, or Adam, or us. The process of creating the self through language is endless, as Petrarch knew in writing his 366 poems to Laura and as Dante knew in writing about Beatrice first in the La Vita Nuova's 3 dozen or so poems, then in the Convivio. Curiously, both poets attempted also to find a place for their love where the endless linguistic process would stop only to find that it can't--Petrarch in his Trionfi where Laura tells him she loves him, but also what he must do to gain a better self, and Dante in the Paradiso where Beatrice's visions for him are beyond words. This constant metamorphic quality is expressed, as we have seen, in Petrarch's shifting style, or as Frost said, in the shifting drama of words within a sentence. Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space: "the spiraled being who, from outside, appears to be a well-invested center, will never reach his center. The being of man is an unsettled being which all expression unsettles. In the reign of the imagination, an expression is hardly proposed, before being adds another expression, before it must be the being of another expression."

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