20 April, 2006


It was possibly Donald Theall who said that Joyce was half-poet, half-engineer. I always liked that image of him; I imagined the old coot with a loupe clenched in his failing eye, peering at the surface of a Wake page, inspecting for plain prose, perhaps arranging paper fragments with a pair of tweezers, calibrating reference density, welding together portmanteaux with an acetylene torch.

I have come to see my own act of writing in such terms. The thought is always present in my mind that there is a correct poem waiting to be produced, my challenge being to find it. In a directly mimetic artform, such as classical sculpture, such a notion is commonsensical—the statue is there in the block of marble, waiting to be carved out, and true insofar as it represents accurately the given subject. But with poetry, and post-metric poetry at that, it is hard to justify such a Platonic conception of the making. Nonetheless, that's how I understand it. The process of writing is a game: I set myself parameters, in the initial words, and let the work develop from there, not fully of its own accord, yet with a measure of objectivity. I never conceive of it as self-expression; this lets me write utter lies, such as 'Easter, 2006', with complete impunity. The poem is merely a set of axioms to be worked out, in the geometrical method. I suppose some might see translation in this way: an act of refinement, reaching for (but never quite reaching) a definite goal or 'ideal poem' represented by the original text. For me, all poetry is translation in this way. Each line can either close a previous pattern, or start a new one—or very often, do both. Thus a poem has an arc of open and closed threads, both semantic and phono-/morphological: rhymes, sound-patterns, themes, repeated words, etc., what Greimas calls 'semes'. To give an example from 'Easter, 2006' (which in fact required relatively few revisions):
And on this day did that spine of words rise up from the tomb,
coming with vivid faces, bestowing life, changed utterly. He spoke
not, but virid phrases issued from his mouth—that opulent room
sprung on twin columns
—a pillar of fire, and a pillar of smoke.
The highlighted words were added or revised: 'rise', which goes phonetically with 'spine' and 'life', was originally 'come', which I altered once 'coming with vivid faces' and 'changed utterly' (from Yeats' Easter, 1916) had been added. I toyed for a while with puns on 'yeast', 'easter', 'yester-day', but it wasn't working for me. Once I reached the third line, it was clear to me that 'vivid faces' had to be phonetically closed, and the solution was quickly apparent: 'virid' goes semantically with 'green' (line 11), and by implication I think also 'vine', while 'phrases' continues the linguistic metaphor of 'syntactic, tongue, letters, words, spoke, verbs, nouns'. The opulent room was originally 'that fine loom strung fine with notes (/thread)', but 'fine' proved too great a phonetic reiteration on 'spine' etc., and the loom was too new a metaphor, too open a semantic pattern. The room, on the other hand, with its twin columns, fitted perfectly with the two pillars, with the spine, and with the metaphor of Christ-as-Bible (one of the distinguishing features of the Bible as a printed text is, naturally, its two columns). Apologies if I'm spoiling the magic for my readers (well, for those who liked the poem!); perhaps this is terribly self-indulgent of me. I thought, however, that some might be curious to know how I worked.

One last note. I have never liked English poems which obey dully the rules of other languages. Particularly irritating are English haiku, for instance, or near-haiku like the 'wet black bough' drivel of Pound. Similarly, I dislike rigid metre, at least in lyric (. . . epic is another matter). But unconstrained poetry is equally banal; chopped-prose free verse is never successful for me. Some of the best (and most well-known) modern poems manage to strike a middle path between these two extremes: the work of Hopkins, Eliot's Prufrock, Stevens' The Emperor of Ice Cream. I find myself quite naturally articulating an organic, open-ended line, caught in on itself (and made poetic) by the tight patterns of repetitions described above.

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