Tony Hoagland: Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation Pt I
Ohio University Press has come out with a book of craft talks, taken from visitors from the Spring Literary festivals over the past ten years or so. They cover fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All proceeds go to assist graduate student scholarship opportunities. It’s well worth a look. The title is LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. Edited by Kevin Haworth and Dinty W. Moore.
The following is one of the essays. This is part one. The next couple parts will come in future posts, so stay tuned. My reaction to the version of this essay that appeared in Gulf Coast back in 2009 can be found in the post just below this one.
T O N Y H O A G L A N D
Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation
Charting the Old to the New Poetry
The old poetry can be about willows;
Haiku requires crows picking snails
in a rice paddy.
—Basho, announcing the new aesthetics, circa AD 700
Epistemology and theories of language—how
we know what we know, how we say it—have
become as central to contemporary lyric
as psychoanalysis in the late 50s, myth and
politics in the late 60s.
—Stephen Burt, “The Elliptical Poets,”
American Letters and Commentary
A S A M E R I C A N P O E T S A N D poetry readers, we find ourselves in the midst of the third wave of poetic modernism, when American poetry is exploding into a galaxy of formal experiment and innovation. All manner of things drift under the poetic sun, from diction-saturated abcdarium poems to fragmentary metaphysical minimalism. Because we are in its midst, we aren’t sure yet of its nature, its meanings, its idioms, or how to assign value to its productions. Is it camp? Is it absurdist? Is it defiantly detached, self-preoccupiedly mannerist clever coterie poetry? Is it self-defeatingly sophisticated? Is it the inauguration of an amazing new physics of representation? We just can’t tell yet.
One place to begin is to consider the evolution, in the last sixty years, of the poet’s relationship to the word. This essay will review and explore the course of those changes by considering a series of examples of the litany. Because the litany, by definition, is a poetic form dedicated to the act of naming, it provides a useful source for sampling the changing perspective of the poet upon language itself.
In his ninth Duino Elegy, Rilke hypothesizes that the cosmic purpose of human beings on earth, surprisingly enough, might not be procreation, but speech:
Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,
Bridge, Fountain, Jug, Olive Tree, Window,—
possibly: Pillar, Tower? . . . but for saying, remember,
oh for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be.
Rilke suggests a vocation for poets: a kind of stewardship. The poet names, and her/his speech vivifies reality (olive tree, window) by pronouncing it. To name is to recognize and endorse material reality, to encourage it, and at the same time to illuminate and spiritualize it. The Biblical resonance—to Adam’s act of assigning the first names—is evident, and like that story, Rilke’s scenario suggests a sacred relationship, which places into transaction three elements: the poet, the word, and the thing. Man is redeemed by the unique usefulness of his speech; matter is elevated by recognition; speech holds unique value for its precision and responsiveness. Here, there is no hint of misfit between words and things—no inaccuracy, and no misrepresentation. Rilke implies that the cosmic breach between spirit and matter can be healed when we embrace, through our speech, the whole world of creation.
This confidence about the functional harmony between speech, things, and humans has not remained constant. In the twentieth century, our faith in the adequacy of language has shifted nervously around again and again, as has our belief in the reliability of knowledge, perception, and human nature. If we want to see how poetry has changed in the last sixty years, we can learn a lot by looking at how the poet’s relationship to the word has continued to change. The literary form of the litany, because it engages in a kind of ceremonial naming, like the one proposed by Rilke’s poem, offers an ideal poetical prototype from which to draw examples of how naming changes.
Rilke’s poem proposes an almost premodern model for poetry’s relationship to the word: perception, recognition, endorsement. We poet-humans are allowed to frolic in the naming of the world. Something like what the British poet Christopher Smart might have been feeling when he sang a pre-Whitman ode to his housecat.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
( Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, lines 695–710)
Smart’s litany illustrates a set of premises about poetic speech: in the meticulousness of his observation, he reveals a faith in the ability of language to precisely convey; likewise, he believes in the obligation of the psalmist to be accurate in his depictions. Thirdly, the poet of Jubilate Agno is allowed some inventiveness—licensed to add verbal and imaginative flourishes, which, in this context, act to mimic the gusto of the cat itself, as well as enact the delight of the speaker. As postmodern, more self-conscious writers, we can admire Smart’s lack of inhibition, his confidence that words are enough; that the world does not revolt against being named; nor do words betray material reality. The result is an athletic song of praise with both naturalness and literary flourish.
But scroll forward through the anthology of years, and consider the contemporary poem “Wildflower,” by Stanley Plumly. Like the previous examples, “Wildflower” is a poem of loving praise, and a poem in contact with the sensory universe of nature. But it is also a poem into which linguistic insecurity has entered: a poem which has been forced to make the flawed, slippery act of naming part of its subject matter, part of its approach to “truth”:
It is June, wildflowers on the table.
They are fresh an hour ago, like sliced lemons,
with the whole day ahead of them.
They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley,
day lilies, or the clustering Canada, large, gold,
long-stemmed as pasture roses, belled out over the vase—
or maybe Solomon’s seal, the petals
ranged in small toy pairs
or starry, tipped at the head like weeds.
They could be anonymous as weeds.
They are, in fact, the several names of the same thing,
lilies of the field, butter-and-eggs,
toadflax almost, the way the whites and yellows juxtapose,
and have “the look of flowers that are looked at,”
rooted as they are in water, glass, and air.
I remember the summer I picked everything,
flower and wildflower, singled them out in jars
with a name attached.
Plumly’s litany of naming is a ritual of praise, but not just praise: it also turns on the topic of lost youth, which is synonymous with lost certainty. There was a day in which the speaker knew the names of things, and trusted them—when everything had “a name attached.” But now a gulf has opened between himself and things. The older, less trusting, and less trustworthy, speaker names the flowers as if stabbing at something he can’t get exactly right. Thus the poem tells the tale of a double fall from grace—not just from youth into the uncertainty of adulthood, into alienation, but also into the situation of knowing oneself to be disconnected from the creation. The estrangement from self and the estrangement from language have become symptomatic of each other. It seems appropriate that the speaker, mid-poem, cites T. S. Eliot’s wry, cross-eyed description of flowers: “the flowers have the look of flowers that are looked at.” A gulf has opened between words and things. In this postnatural existence, once man is lost in the maze of self-consciousness, all things recede into the distant mirror. It is impossible to get any closer to X than the sign for X.
Plumly’s speaker-poet has a case of language cross-eyes, a modern bifocal condition that has only worsened for poets over the last thirty years, this double vision that can lead to a host of speech impediments like stuttering, dyslexia, and muteness. The next generation of poets would contract a case of dislocation influenza that makes Plumly’s linguistic uneasiness look like the sniffles.