Wednesday, January 4, 2012

reading wallace stevens in the new year

I don't understand poetry. I can see beautiful things in poetry--in small and in large. And there are things I do and can understand sometimes and in some poetry. Reading, say, Wallace Stevens lately, I have the sense of something beautiful down deep where I can't see/fathom/conceive. There is something there inaccessible to me and I don't know what to do about or with it.

The only activity I know to take with writing, with words, with the letters is to take the words and phrases and lines apart. To try to break the thing into constitutive pieces. But the poem, it seems, is not made of bricks. I can't undo the edifice to reveal the building plans. It is not, say, a chicken, and I cannot, like a master butcher, carve it up, moving my knife into the spaces between the bones to divide it effortlessly into essential pieces. The poem, it seems, is more like a painting and my approach to the poem is rather like trying to understand a painting by removing each layer of paint. The poem is like a large piece of pottery--a sealed urn--and inside that urn there is something. The urn gives me that sense somehow.

Whatever there may be inside that urn, however, requires the protection of the pottery for its existence. I don't know how it is I know this, but I seem to know it. So how may I understand it? How can I understand the urn if I don't understand what it protects? How can I know the secrets of the urn unless I open it somehow?

I try to take apart the words and lines of the poem in order to understand it. Even while I do this, I see that I may as well smash the urn and, with violence, force the secret from it. What do I find?  Aha! There is... ! Liquid gushes and spills everywhere good for nothing and no one and ruins my shoes. Or a peculiar smell--and nothing else--escapes the shattered vase and is lost in the ether. No, a tiny thing like a homunculus--hairless and fragile--scrambles among the sharp pottery and bleeds to death trying to hide his nakedness.

How can I learn to understand poetry and not destroy it?

Perhaps poetry is particularly tough (or so it seems) because its medium is the same as that of strongly analytic scientific work. Like a painting done in equation-paint or a sculpture done in moving gears. How, now, can I tell the difference between the factory and the gallery? Between the library and the laboratory?

I tend to focus on the stuff of it, the material, on the sense of the building blocks and/because I cannot apprehend the poem as/for/in itself. Words mean things. But what/how does that mean in /for poetry?

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