Per cola et commata

3PictureTwachtmanWinterSmFinally finished volume one of Luke. My chief devotional was Joseph Fitzmyer’s part of the Anchor Bible, but for me over several months it was my anchor text, the text I’d pick up and drop daily so the currents of other texts wouldn’t get me lost.

The chief candidate for my new anchor text was last owned by Rev. Ed Coleman of Nashville’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was first owned by Tom — his last name doesn’t appear in the book — who received it as Christmas gift from John and (I think) Teasie in 1966, the year the book was published. I don’t know how Rev. Coleman got the book or if he knows Ed. And I? I got the book from a bookseller. The book itself is a hardbound copy of Edmond Bonin’s translation of Louis Evely’s That Man Is You. Besides the handwriting that informed me about the previous owners, the book had no marks before I started in on it today.

I discovered the work on my mother’s devotional shelf when I visited my parents over Christmas. One page I randomly turned to spoke to me in my discouragement about my writing. The discouragement felt vaguely productive. It felt like a winter field with the plow and scythe put up somewhere in the shed. Kind of like a Twachtman painting, or at least of the one I enjoy at the Phillips. It’s as if Twachtman in all that snow couldn’t farm; all he could do was paint.

God alone knows
………..what He expects of us,
………..what response He’s looking for
………..and how many people’s destinies depend on ours. (128)

Evely’s book is sharpening that picture.

Bonin puts Evely’s prose in verse. Bonin says, though, that he has disposed the text in “sense lines”:

Based on the ancient method of pronging prose per cola et commata, this sense-line arrangement throws into greater relief the development, co-ordination and subordination of ideas, emphasizes significant parallelism and antithesis, and permits one to isolate key words. (v)

According to Dianne Tillotsonper cola et commata facilitates reading out loud:

Instead of filling up the page with continuous text, the line breaks reflect the way in which the text should be read aloud.

Tillotson describes other devices in medieval texts to the same purpose, and then says of them all:

This text is not designed for the mindless recitation of spelled-out syllables and words. It is coded for he projection of meaning.

Bonin’s approach is a step past John Anthony McGuckin’s in his Book of Mystical Chapters. McGuckin breaks monastic aphorisms into verses, but by aligning all lines to the left margin, he relies only on line breaks to augment sense and reflection. Bonin’s work appears more like the sentence mapping middle school teachers often require to learn syntax.

Per cola et commata may give me a new way into Charles Wright’s poetry. His lines are even more loosely anchored to the left margin than Bonin’s take on Evely, and the placement does seem “coded for the projection of meaning.” Wright’s verse sails on a spirituality that, even more with his unmoored lines, carries an ancient salt in its spray.

Image: John Henry Twachtman’s Winter at the Phillips Collection.

The language

Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years I last read long ago.  Four Quartets is an exception: I started rereading it a decade ago.  But it’s typical – even a fugleman – of these books in another respect: I didn’t understand it when I read it in college, but I loved it anyway.

I wrote some pretty insightful notes in its margins back then, but I think that came from a professor’s lecture.  Anyway, none of that stayed with me.  What I remember is the language.  I loved it.  It’s what my younger self and I can share when we read it now.

Four Quartet’s thought helped save me from a dark time around age forty.  I never would have picked it back up then, though, if I hadn’t remembered it then like young love.

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Kahn too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch our hands out and gather them in?

(The first stanza of Charles Wright’s “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” the poem I rememorized this year for class when I couldn’t master Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”)

Eliot burned my ears.

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to ornate language.  I mean, look at whom I’ve been rereading: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Fielding.  Wallace is almost baroque.  Stevens. And Lawrence Sterne, too.  All stuff from high school or college. It’s the sound of it that made me swallow their seeds and kept them inside me for decades, long enough to germinate, long enough for me to have made some sense of it, or – better – for it to have made some sense out of me.  Sound before insight: the thunder before the lightning, in my case.

All of this stress on short sentences (or at least simple ones) and plain language.  I like plain language; I even believe in it, particularly deceptively plain language.  How could I not, given the present age?  But plain words don’t impact me like the winding-road sentences of, say, Tristram Shandy.  I dream recurring dreams of paths leading to bright lands of purple trees and orange sky.  I fall asleep listening to Peter Barker’s reading of Sterne as if to the swoosh-swoosh and universe of my mother’s womb.

The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s delightful, 2009 romp through the last century of American fiction, points out two major approaches to literature, one epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other by Thomas Wolfe in an exchange of letters McGurl summarizes:

Taken up by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and subsequently by a great many of the writers who would be associated with writing programs after the Second World War, the poetics of “show don’t tell” would gradually evolve into a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.  Thus we find Fitzgerald, in an avuncular letter to his fellow Max Perkins protégé, encouraging Wolfe to cultivate “a more conscious artist” in himself, and to consider the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.  Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald was both churlish and impressively learned; he invoked a parallel tradition in the novel, including works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, produced not by “taker-outers” like Flaubert but by “putter-inners” like himself.  All he could take from Fitzgerald’s advice, he wrote, circling back as always to the primacy of authorial selfhood, was that “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer than I am.” (99)

(The passage’s main point, for you kids using this post to prep for SAT’s, is how another Max Perkins is as unlikely to show up as another Shakespeare.)

Wolfe is always out of favor; he almost was from the start.  But as I’m looking homeward, myself, I might reread him, too.  (My grandmother gave me Look Homeward, Angel to help me cope with my adolescence, and maybe I’m coping with it still.)  I like Fitzgerald, but I’m a howling Wolfe man.

But don’t get George Steiner started!  Unlike McGurl, he takes sides.  He sees Hemingway as “a brilliant response to the diminution of linguistic possibility”:

Sparse, laconic, highly artificial in its conventions of brevity and understatement, that style sought to reduce the ideal of Flaubert – le mot juste – to a scale of basic language.  One may admire it or not.  But, undeniably, it is based on a most narrow conception of the resources of literacy. . . . By retrenching language to a kind of powerful, lyric shorthand, Hemingway narrows the compass of observed and rendered life.  He is often charged with his monotonous adherence to hunters, fisherman, bullfighters, or alcoholic soldiers.  But this constancy is a necessary result of the available medium.  How could Hemingway’s language convey the inward life of more manifold or articulate characters?  Imagine trying to translate the consciousness of Raskolnikov into the vocabulary of “The Killers.”  Which is not to deny the perfection of this grim snapshot.  But Crime and Punishment gathers into itself a sum of life entirely beyond Hemingway’s thin medium.

(From “The Retreat from the Word,” a 1961 essay republished in Steiner’s Language & Silence, pages 30 and 31.)

Steiner is more concerned in this essay with the extent of our functioning vocabulary than he is with sentence length or structure, strictly speaking.  But it’s all of a piece these days.  I heart Steiner’s précis of my man Faulkner, who loved big, fun-sounding words and vine-like syntax more than he loved merely long sentences:

Within a syntax whose convolutions are themselves expressive of Faulkner’s landscape, ornate, regional language makes a constant assault upon our feelings.  Often the words seem to grown cancerous, engendering other words in ungoverned foison.  At times, the sense is diluted as in a swamp-mist.  But nearly always, this idiosyncratic, Victorian night-parlance is a style.  Faulkner is not afraid of words even where they submerge him.  And where he is in control of them, Faulkner’s language has a thrust and vital sensuousness that carry all before them.  Much in Faulkner is overwritten or even badly written.  But the novel is always written through and through.  The act of eloquence, which is the very definition of a writer, is not let go by default. (32)

Steiner, who wrote this around age thirty, is an old soul, and, while I find that he often rushes too quickly to judgment for my taste, he is not afraid to say things that sound strange to me but I suspect were held true by most serious writers before McGurl’s “program era.”  So the act of eloquence is “the very definition of a writer.”  Who says that anymore?

Ascetic aesthetic

[Black Zodiac cover]What gets me about Gerard Manley Hopkins right now, and the reason I read his bio and reread some of his poems this month, isn’t Hopkins but what Charles Wright can do with him. As far as I can see, Wright loves Hopkins’s repetition and his invented compound nouns and adjectives, but he achieves something different with them. The poet Richard Watson Dixon wrote Hopkins that he agreed with Robert Bridges’s assessment: Hopkins’s poems “more carried him out of himself than those of any one.”  I feel the same way about Hopkins’s poems; there’s something pure and other about them that allows me to connect with him. But Wright takes me not out of myself but into a space within, a void – a sometimes-scary one – a void that feels like contemplation is coming.  For me, then, Wright is pure mirror: all knowing, unknowable, discoverable only as I slowly discover myself.  So he’s kind of like the therapist I had years ago, soft spoken but professional, the tribe’s shaman who always pointed me to an abyss.

I started reading Wright’s Black Zodiac a couple of months ago because I thought he could help me with my writing.  I loved how he makes presence or absence out of uncanny associations, and I’ve always wanted to do that.  Plus, my own poetry has become so crabbed and suffocating that I was drawn to Wright’s open spaces, both his physical white spaces and his inviting, spiritual space that draws me to stay in his poems.  My sentimental favorite, and my first Wright dwelling-place, is a single-page poem, “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” of which I’ll quote the beginning:

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Khan too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch out our hands and gather them in?

My brother slides through the blue zones in enormous planes.
My sister’s cartilage, ash and bone.
My parents rock in their blackened boats,
back and forth, back and forth.
Above the ornamental cherries, the sky is a box and glaze.
Well, yes, a box and a glaze.

He’s got that Hopkins thing going on, and he has a wisdom-writing syntax applied over a kind of dreamscape of deft reverie.  Sort of an Eliot-like playfulness, too; I hear Burnt Norton in the ornamental cherries in the middle of that pseudo-theory (“Other echoes / Inhabit the garden.  Shall we follow?”). In other words, everything I’ve most loved in modern poetry.  Aesthetically, Wright has been a dream come true.

“Thinking of Winter” looked so easy to write that I tried on several occasions to get a similar effect from what I could pick out about the tone, the syntax, the diction, the repetition, the spacing, the associations . . . but I couldn’t come close.  The longer I kept trying, though, the closer I read and the more I felt drawn into the poetry’s considerable space, a space that has made room for (I’ll admit) some of my own poem-like fragments.

It turns out to be a tough space, not graceless but tough like Zen masters and Levantine monks are supposed to be tough.  Quiet and tough.  There’s an ascetic in his aesthetic that I can’t quite pinpoint.  Wright likes religious imagery and themes, and certainly he tries to relate a metaphysical world he finds, a la Hopkins, in nature – even a suburban nature; I’ve lived near and walked down the Charlottesville streets he’s written about. Yet none of this but only the demanding, empty space makes Black Zodiac the most religious poetry I can remember reading.  I blinked my eyes a few times taking in Harold Bloom’s blurb on the book’s back cover, but I agree with him now, to the extent I understand him: “Some of the poems achieve an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence.”

These lines aren’t typical – they’re rather direct – but they state Wright’s vision, I think, and are spoken in that most masculine voice of his:

Interstices.  We live in the cracks.
Under Ezekiel and his prophecies,
under the wheel.

Poetry’s what’s left between the lines –
a strange speech and a hard language,
It’s all in the unwritten, it’s all in the unsaid . . .
And that’s a comfort, I think,
for our lack and our inarticulation.

Here’s some of his tough stuff (from the last section of “Meditation of Song and Structure”):

Medieval, prelatic, why
Does the male cardinal sing that song, omit, omit,
From the eminence of the gum tree?
What is it he knows,
silence, omit, omit, silence,
The afternoon breaking away in little pieces,
Siren’s equal from the bypass,
The void’s tattoo, Nothing Matters,
mottoed across our white hearts?

One of the book’s finest poems is about Hopkins, a typically unsentimental one-pager called “Jesuit Graves,” written, it appears, after Wright visited his grave in Dublin.  The poem ends:

P. Gerardus Hopkins, 28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889, Age 44.
And then the next name.  And then the next,
Soldiers of misfortune, lock-step into a star-colored tight dissolve,
History’s hand-me-ons.  But you, Father Candescence,
You, Father Fire?
Whatever rises comes together, they say.  They say.

What a tribute.  (Not the poem.)

 

Posted February 25, 2010.