Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Messy procedure

I've been reading Don Paterson's commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets in desultory fashion for many months (its home during that time has been on top of my toilet's water tank). The book is often brilliant and funny, occasionally sloppy and maddening. One of the things I love about it is Paterson's engagement with earlier exegeses of the sonnets, but perhaps my favourite parts are the digressive excursions he makes from time to time, commenting on poetry and criticism more generally.

In his commentary on Sonnet 148, he talks about Helen Vendler's "kabbalistic tour de force that uncovers many buried correspondences, DEFECTIVE KEY WORDS, chiastic and structural patterns--absolutely none of which, I suspect, WS was either aware of or had intended." He continues:

By now, you may be getting the impression that I don't think Vendler's is the way to do criticism. Yes and no: HV is often brilliantly illuminating, but her commentary on the Sonnets suffers from a double-whammy of misperceptions.
     Firstly, too much stuff is described as deliberately planned effect that I'm certain arose from nothing more than human feeling and instinctive decision-making, driven through the local compositional exigencies of the sonnet form. Secondly, and more sinisterly, HV seem sot assume that the poem actually has a deep essence, pattern or structure which we can usefully abstract and codify in this way. It doesn't; the game of poetry is to keep those things in play, and to fix and codify them is to misrepresent their protean nature, and their total dependency on the dynamic process of subjective reading; otherwise you're conferring a reality they don't possess. This is the theistic fallacy in another guise. I think many of the deep patters and symbolic underpinnings that HV diagnoses are not integral to the poem itself, but only back-formed from her sometimes too-careful reading; which is to say they're here, and not Shakespeare's. If they do really exist, they must be in the hands of some remote third party, who at some point will confirm the accuracy of the brilliant exegesis. But there's just you, me, and this wee poem. That's an open game. However HV too often plays a closed one, poring over the Sonnets as if they were a holy book--as if it actually possessed rather than generated some meaning, and finds nothing more or less than the richness of her own mind. A relief that it's so rich, since one invariably learns so much from its company. But the Sonnets were the work of a brilliant and fallible human, and they shouldn't be interrogated like the Book of Thoth.
     Everyone composes in a roughly similar way. Frost's notebooks are pretty much like mine and like those of my friends, the difference lying only in the genius of the results. There are both a thousand ways to write a poem, and precisely one: messy procedure. The poem may take on a crystalline and even algebraic appearance in the end, but for all its ferocious technique, that final poem was reached through a dynamic process with feeling and instinct at its heart--and was not guided by the kind of structural blueprint and organizational intelligence that critics like HV divine at every turn. You see the problem: it looks like a subtle distinction, but there's actually a massive difference between suggestion that the structure is somehow anterior to the poem, as opposed to merely an emergent feature of its final form, with which its pattern of feeling and lyric is not properly separable.
     Poets want us to lose ourselves in the surface our their language, not its hidden machinery--not least because that machinery is often hidden from the poets themselves. Not that we should always honour that desire: as you'll have noticed, I'm all for putting the poem into dry dock, so we can see what's going on beneath the surface, find what keeps it afloat, and marvel at its construction. But to talk as if that's where the deeper or larger truth of the poem might reside is wrong. To find that, we need to set it back in the water. The truth of a poem is in the cut of its jib, the breath in its sails, the clever route it charts to its new poet, and the skill and speed and grace with which it moves.

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