In seven insightful essays, Carl Phillips meditates on the craft of poetry, its capacity for making a space for possibility and inquiry. What does it mean to give shapelessness a form? How can a poem explore both the natural world and the inner world? Phillips demonstrates the restless qualities of the imagination by reading and examining poems by Ashbery, Bogan, Frost, Niedecker, Shakespeare, and others, and by considering other art forms, such as photography and the blues. The Art of Daring is a lyrical, persuasive argument for the many ways that writing and living are acts of risk. "I think it's largely the conundrum of being human that makes us keep making," Phillips writes. "I think it has something to do with revisionhow, not only is the world in constant revision, but each of us is, as well."
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The Art of Daring
Risk, Restlessness, Imagination
By Carl Phillips
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2014 Carl Phillips
All rights reserved.
Little Gods of Making
A friend tells me we are, all of us, little gods of making, here on earth to make some part of us we can leave behind, a way of translating making into made — made as a kind of death, or closure, to the act of making. It's as if the trajectory of art were necessarily that of life itself, with art having perhaps more resonance than the body-in-death. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say there's a different resonance, since the body-in-death has its own haunting, unforgettable, and often unbearable qualities, from which we walk away at last not unchanged.
"It's a human need, to give to shapelessness a form." So I said once, in an earlier poem, referring specifically to the human impulse to make something concrete out of an abstraction like love — hence, relationships, the various configurations of making a life with someone else. But while it may be true that humans deal with the particular shapelessness of abstractions, the impulse to give or make form is evident throughout the natural world. Out of the general shapelessness of straw and thread, for example, birds fashion a nest, the form of the nest designed to accommodate the bird's body and the bodies that will also live there later. Animals tend toward social forms — coyotes into packs, fish into schools, making out of the directionless (because unassigned) individual body a community of bodies, each given a place in the social order, all for the purpose of survival — which is to say that the motivation, instinctively, is to again accommodate the body, by protecting it. Form, shape — these may be our only way, finally, of making sense of the world around us. And the body may be the one form, finally, from which we begin, each time, our knowing. This makes sense, given that we are born into form — each of us is a former shapelessness that acquired physical form, and the general impulse is to create forms that will accommodate the protection of that ur-form, as it were, the body.
Houses, societies — these accommodate the physical protection of the body. Art, I would like to suggest, accommodates the psychic/psychological protection of the body — something required specifically by humans (as opposed to coyotes, birds, fish) because of that self-consciousness that is unique to human beings, our ability to be aware of such things as mortality, and to think in terms of ethics and of moral valence ...
There's a yard that I've walked my dog past for years — we'd stop each day and wait for the dog tied up there to notice us, come toward us, and then do the brief sniff-and-greet that dogs do. That dog died last winter, but all this past summer, whenever we walked past that yard, my dog would stop, look into the empty yard, wag her tail — then we'd move on. This may be memory, on my dog's part, but not recognition exactly, and certainly not grief. Nor does passing the yard conjure in the dog any loose meditation on loss, animal awareness of it, or of regret. That's the beauty of being an animal, and the sometime curse of being a human being. It's a curse, though, that is catalyst, too, for the making of art.
* * *
Here is a poem by Louise Bogan, called "Night":
The cold remote islands
And the blue estuaries
Where what breathes, breathes
The restless wind of the inlets,
And what drinks, drinks
The incoming tide;
Where shell and weed
Wait upon the salt wash of the sea,
And the clear nights of stars
Swing their lights westward
To set behind the land;
Where the pulse clinging to the rocks
Renews itself forever;
Where, again on cloudless nights,
The water reflects
The firmament's partial setting;
— O remember
In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart.
What I've always admired most immediately in this poem is its camera work, the way in which the reader's eye is so carefully controlled. In stanza one, it's as if we're looking straight out, into a remoteness whose inhabitants are unspecifiable, "what breathes," "what drinks." With stanza two, we get the specifics of shell and weed, assignable to the shore, and the stars, assignable to sky; which is to say, we have moved from looking out, and are now directed downward to the shore and sea, then upward to the night sky, and then — by the anticipation of the stars' setting — back to the land they will set behind. The same movements occur in stanza three — downward to the rocks, upward to the sky (implied by "cloudless"), downward to the water, then upward, via reflection, to the firmament (and again, the mention of "setting," to imply the horizon of land). In the course of three stanzas, we look into a generality of world, only to learn that what appears general has its specific zones of earth, sea, and sky, which — when we look more repeatedly (are made to do so, in stanza three) — seem the fixed and timeless points around and within which all else "merely" occurs, then ceases to do so. This recognition is the trigger for the camera's final move — the camera, which has looked out into the physical, natural world, swings to an interior that is human, metaphysical, self-reflective, and too often forgetful of and/or resistant to the self's relative irrelevance within the world it inhabits and the limitedness of the self's existence, as we see the ongoing, cyclical interaction of the sea, earth, and sky juxtaposed with the "narrowing dark hours" that characterize human life.
Camera work is one level at which Bogan's poem can be seen as an enactment of the mind passing from mere observation to a kind of curiosity that in turn leads to closer observation, which then leads to understanding. What gets understood is sobering. Also disturbing. Also strangely comforting: to understand one's transience in the world — one's irrelevance to it — can be a way to begin assigning less weight to our various crises, whether those of triumph or defeat; and from here, the diminishment both of arrogance and of selfpity becomes possible.
This doesn't change how disturbing it also is, to recognize that we will die, while the world will continue, utterly indifferent to our having existed. The difficulty of reaching this understanding gets enacted in the syntax of Bogan's poem. To begin with, the first three stanzas are all part of what turns out to be a single, incomplete sentence. We're led to believe there will be resolution; subordinate clauses create anticipation — we anticipate a governing sentence within which these clauses have been embedded. We get a total of five clauses that hinge on the word where in the first three stanzas:
where A breathes
where B drinks
where shell and weed wait
and the clear nights of stars swing
where the pulse renews itself
where the water reflects
These presumably occur within a main sentence, yes? The subject of the sentence is announced from the start: "The cold remote islands / And the blue estuaries" — what about them? we might ask — which is to say, we want a verb, to tell us something about their existence or their activity. Instead, we keep coming up against clauses that stall the arrival of a verb by continuing to refocus on what occurs within the space defined by islands and estuaries and then by the earth and sky. The relative clauses are where physical vision gets refined to the point of clarity that leads to metaphysical understanding. The clauses can also be seen as a stubbornness, at the level of syntax — the mind balks, falters, as it approaches a difficult truth — the sentence refuses to conclude, except via the nonconclusion of a semicolon at the end of the third stanza; the main verb never gets delivered. It's as if the mind were saying "I can't," "I won't," and then "I must" — and with that, the poem leaps into recognition. That leap gets signaled by the abandoning of a long fragment for a briefer, complete sentence, the abandoning of the declarative voice for the imperative — the command to "remember" — and the abandoning of the exterior world of geography for the interior of the self, the human "you" that had been nowhere apparent in the poem before.
All poems contain tension of one kind or another. Or, to be specific, any poem that has resonance will contain tension. One tension in Bogan's poem is between the stalling I've described already and the relentlessness with which the poem's form marches steadily forward. The syntax stalls, but the stanza length, moving from a six-line stanza, to two five-line stanzas, to a final stanza of four lines, diminishes, reflective of the poem's argument that the world is larger than the self, the self that accordingly receives the fewest lines.
That is one level of tension. But another occurs between the self receiving only four lines and the fact that those lines are the poem's final stanza — arguably a poem's most important stanza. Which is it? Are we irrelevant? Or are we everything that at last the world comes down to? I would say this is the main tension of Bogan's poem. And the fact that both things are true gives the poem its resonance: we can understand our relative unimportance within the grand scheme of life, but we are incapable of seeing the world through any other lens before seeing it first through the lens of our individual selves. My world is not my dog's world, and yet the world itself is the same world. Bogan's poem exhorts us to try remembering that human existence and endeavor are not the only things — are perhaps the least things. But we are human, and to us, they are everything.
* * *
The predicted tropical storm arrived late this morning, and by late afternoon was at hurricane pitch. And in accordance with what by now is pretty much ritual, my partner and I drove up the coast, to see the storm's full impact. Parked up at Nauset Heights, at a landing that no one else has managed to find, we've got an uninterrupted view of the ocean — powerful, violent. There's a cracked dinghy that someone forgot to bring in; the wind must have taken it and smashed it against the rock it now rests beside. There's a section of wooden fencing that has come apart, after the dune that it held gave way — again, the wind, the water.
Turning to Doug, I say, "I think what attracts me to storms is the way they reduce form to formlessness. Or no, that's not it. A storm revises a thing's original form. It isn't formlessness, it's revision."
To all of which, Doug answers by saying, "There's nothing better than a great storm." He's a photographer, a landscape photographer, the kind whose instinct is to see the world first for what it is, not for what it may conjure up in the mind. Clarity of vision, not distortion of it. This is not to say that he isn't capable of seeing the various other resonances of a landscape, but that comes later, I think. I'm the kind of poet who thinks in the opposite manner, tending to see first what a thing resembles, and only afterward — almost reluctantly — do I see it for what it actually is. As if distortion were preferable to reality. Isn't it, sometimes? Isn't this what Bogan's poem is also saying?
Meanwhile, to see a thing only for what it physically is, is its own distortion. For human beings, the world is not experienced purely through the senses, but through consciousness, histories private and public, individual notions of right and wrong, and an inability to resist entirely an urge to anthropomorphize. The term for a tree whose limbs grow downward, instead of up and out, is weeping. As if it were sad. As if a tree could be sad.
* * *
It would be freeing, indeed, to inhabit a world stripped of resonance — for a time at least. "No ideas but in things," says William Carlos Williams. Things are what they are — that may be so; but why do they so swiftly have nuances, connotations? Why, for some of us, do they almost always? These are among the questions behind James Schuyler's poem "Procession," a poem whose form enacts the struggle between an impulse toward resonance and a longing for it to spare us, just a little:
Serene and purple twilight of the South
the wind-distorted olives
so dim beside the road
so very still tonight
the sea delicately touches
the shore with foam
Black clad, glimmer of white
pyramids of trembling gold
up the white road wind
in misty iris blue
a cross, a crown, a spear
the air is drenched
the nails, the hammer
fragrance of lemon and orange
the scourge, a sponge
salt perfume of the sea
The juxtaposition is set up in the first two stanzas. The first stanza presents us with the natural world — serene, purple, a delicacy to the sea's touches; though we could also say the eye here is a bit idealistic — the sea isn't always delicate, of course; and there's a hint of an impulse to cast what is less than ideal into the background, as we note how the twilight has put a dimness upon distortion in that phrase "the wind-distorted olives / so dim beside the road" (lines 2–3).
But immediately following this stanza is the religious procession, the participants clad in black and white, and bearing torches or candles — so I am reading the image "pyramids of trembling gold" (8). With that juxtaposition, the natural world, free of connotation, gets pitched against nothing less than the crucifixion that marks that zone in Christianity between Old Testament vengeance and New Testament mercy and salvation. The poem's observer cannot see a religious procession without the procession suggesting something of the history of the faith behind that procession, hence the immediate images that spring to mind: "a cross, a crown, a spear" (11). From that line to the poem's end, there's a patterned monostichic shuttling between crucifixion imagery and images that spring purely from the natural world — the air, the scent of citrus on it, the smell of the sea. As if the speaker were hoping to push away the image of suffering by focusing instead on the natural world? Is the tone of the last six lines that of insistence?
Another way to read those last six lines is as coming all from the same scene. Perhaps the speaker, in remembering the crucifixion, now fleshes out, as it were, the remembered scene — imagining that, at the time of the crucifixion, the air might well have been drenched, have smelled of citrus and the sea. If this is the case, then another way to read these last lines is as an implied assertion about suffering: that, while suffering takes place, the world continues — as indeed it does. It continues and does so fairly oblivious to our human endeavors, the same realization that Bogan arrived at in her poem. And this realization might understandably trigger a response whereby we want to push away human reality for an idealized natural world — which takes us back to our first way of reading the poem's last six lines, namely, as an enactment of the mind refusing the imagery of suffering. Note, too, that the imagery of suffering is also synonymous with the human-made — cross, crown, spear, nails, hammer, scourge, sponge: all human-made, concrete, versus the abstract, sensual world of drenchedness, fragrance, perfume, all of it attachable to the natural elements of, respectively, air, lemon and orange, and the sea. So there's another level of tension, not just between suffering and natural beauty, but also between the human-made and the natural.
Can all of these things be at work in the poem? Is there a need to choose?
There may not be a need to choose, but there is usually, eventually, a desire for closure, for some choice to be made. Schuyler gives an even number of lines to the suffering and to what I'll call beauty. They are exactly in balance, we might say. But beauty is the note on which the poem ends, so that, for a moment, it can feel as if beauty is the victor, has in a sense put a halt to the debate by resolving it. That sense of closure occurs at the level of sound, as well — if we read the poem aloud, eventually the words end and we stop speaking. But look at how the first two stanzas opened with a capital letter — announcing a new stanza and, at first thought, a sentence; in both these stanzas, however, we've been misled: Each stanza is a fragment. Each began, orthographically, as a sentence, but no verb appears, hence the stanzas do not end with a period (I note that stanza one does contain a complete sentence — "the sea delicately touches / the shore with foam" — but it appears embedded within the fragment, thanks to there being no capital letters to show where a sentence might begin). After these two stanzas, we have the six monostichs, nowhere capitalized, and yet clearly not part of an earlier sentence; instead, the elements float, list-like, processionally, and the absence of a period at the poem's end implies that there is no end — the words have ended, but without conclusion. Note too that in the three places where there is punctuation — the commas that occur in the stanzas containing the tools of crucifixion — the effect is to generate a list within a single line, an ongoing series that ends by not ending, in unpunctuated white space.
Excerpted from The Art of Daring by Carl Phillips. Copyright © 2014 Carl Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Table of Contents
Little Gods of Making,
Poetry, Love, and Mercy,
Which One's the World?,
Heaven and Earth,