Tuesday, June 10, 2008
an apple is what you do with it
While writing a review of Matthea Harvey's Modern Life, and pondering (again) the penchant of some contemporary poets for using words as playthings without respect for their meaning(s)--implied, contextual, inflected, literal or metaphorical--I noticed the most recent New Yorker article on Pound's influence ("The Pound Error") which included this:
"Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ ” was the formula of the movement that Pound invented, in 1912: Imagism. In the Imagist model, the writer is a sculptor. Technique consists of chipping away everything superfluous in order to reveal the essential form within. “It took you ninety-seven words to do it,” Pound is reported to have remarked to a young literary aspirant who had handed him a new poem. “I find it could have been managed in fifty-six."
The seed of the trouble lies in what most people find the least problematic aspect of the Imagist aesthetic: the insistence on "the perfect word," l.e. mot juste. This seems a promise to get language up to the level of experience: artifice and verbiage are shorn away, and words point directly to the objects they name.
Language becomes transparent; we experience the world itself. "When words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish," Pound wrote in 1915. This is a correspondence theory of language with a vengeance. We might doubt the promise by noting that in ordinary speech we repeat, retract, contradict, embellish, and digress continually in order to make our meaning more precise. No one likes to be required to answer a question yes or no, because things are never that simple. This is not because individual words are too weak; it’s because they are too powerful. They can mean too many things. [Italics mine] So we add more words, and embed our clauses in more clauses, in order to mute language, modify it, and reduce it to the modesty of our intentions. President Clinton was right: "is" does have many meanings, and we need to be allowed to explain the particular one we have in mind."
As both editor and poet, Pound was especially aware of the power of a word. It reminds me that the expression "it's only words" (used, astoundingly, by Hillary Clinton—-another Clinton!—-in reference to Obama's speeches) is, or ought to be, anathema to any poet (or writer) claiming to be the real thing, yet we have had decades of poets who write in just that way—-with no respect for, or love of, words. (Curiously, Ron Silliman refers to my review of Harvey as "dissing" her book. In fact, I've probably paid closer attention to her actual poems than any other reviewer. Other reviewers talk mainly about the "project" she has engaged in, not the actual writing.)
Meanwhile, thanks to Ron Silliman's amazing list of links (where I now go for my poetry news fix, along with Poetry Daily News), I came across this, a discussion of how scientists are working on understanding how the brain decodes meaning:
"The meaning of an apple, for instance, is represented in brain areas responsible for tasting, for smelling, for chewing. An apple is what you do with it."
Pound would have been pleased by such a discovery, I think: the direct correspondance between word meaning and experience.
Posted by Joan Houlihan at 4:55 AM