Saturday, January 26, 2008

unsweetened peonies




In a previous entry, Chad Parmenter's comment introduced the idea of a possible relationship between ellipticism and parataxis—something I started thinking about and now have followed a little further. While ellipsis and parataxis are different (but not opposite) types of grammatical constuction, it's true that many contemporary poems are characterized by paratactic constructions and that, therefore, the "space" left by the disconnected sentences, phrases or fragments is elliptical, that is, to be filled in by the reader. Generally, a heavily paratactic poem signals its modernity. The opposite of parataxis, hypotaxis, is more often seen in older poems. A poem by Jane Kenyon, for example, already seems dated due to its reliance on hypotactic constructions (among other things, including its predictable movement toward the epiphany):

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

The poem is immediately "updated" when parataxis replaces hypotaxis, fragments replace full sentences and juxtaposition is introduced:

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies bloom, send out light.
The rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers! Big as human
heads. Staggered by their own

luxuriance: I had to prop them up
with stakes, twine.

The moist air intensifies. Their scent.
The moon moves around the barn

to find out what it's coming from
in the darkening June evening.

I draw a blossom near, bend close, search it.
A woman searching a loved one's face.


Many older (or not so older) readers of contemporary poetry are put off by the contemporary poem's parataxis and resultant syntactical shifts, just as they find cinematic jumps unpleasant rather than exciting. Because a poem no longer has a recognizable stylistic façade, the reader may find it impossible to enter—where's the door? A poem's subject matter is less of a readability problem for some than the (defeated) expectation of familiar syntax.

Further updating occurs when Kenyon's poem is rearranged toward an "eastern" rather than "western" ending (these are terms I first heard from April Ossman at a Colrain conference). Briefly, the western ending is one that ends the poem with a swelling wave of music and a clash of cymbals; the eastern ending is a chime struck once that reverberates throughout the landscape. The original, western ending:

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

As experienced poets know, the extreme westernization of a poem's ending can often be alleviated by a simple swapping of stanzas:

Peonies at Dusk

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They're staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it's coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one's face.

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

So the poem ends with a whimper, not a bang, and has a more contemporary feel. Now, with a paratactical syntax, and relineation into couplets (another contemporary trend):

Peonies at Dusk

Outrageous flowers! Big as human
heads. Staggered by their own

luxuriance. I had to prop them up
with stakes, twine. The moist air

intensifies their scent. The moon moves
around the barn to find out what

it's coming from. In the darkening
June evening I draw a blossom near,

bend close. Search it. A woman
searching a loved one's face.

White peonies bloom, send out light.
The rest of the yard grows dim.

Now the debate over author intentionality, the meaning of meaning and all such like concerns begins--the concern of translators is also the concern of any reader of a literary text--how to balance the stylistic or "surface" with the intended (and unintended) authorial purpose(s). Many poets use surface manipulation to achieve terrific, often unexpected, results. The idea of poetic development, as it applies to some inner, psychological (or spiritual) evolution (and hard-won "truths") seems also a somewhat outmoded, heavily romanticised concept of the Poet. After all, Khalil Gibran (my favorite "poet" in high school!) or Rumi or good old Babba Ram Dass (sure wish he could be here now) and others of the high-minded supercharged spiritual school of poetry certainly have reached some heights (or depths) of inner development--but what have they got to show for it in re: to the actual writing? Obviously, no connection, and never has been one, between personal goodness, suffering, enlightenment and whatnot and great writing. I remember this conundrum well from my hippified youth--guru-worship vs. the drek of the guru's actual writing--swing low, sweet platitude.

2 comments:

Chad Parmenter said...

Awesome thoughts, Joan. They make me think of Stephen Burt's essay on Lucie Brock-Broido, where he talks about her shifts in persona and presentation of multiple selves in one poem. The shifts are paratactic, but it seems like hypotactic elements may be at work, too. The link between ellipsis and parataxis is fascinating to think about. Thanks so much. See you in NYC!

Unduly Amplified said...

Illuminating look at parataxis. Examples, yes.