Thinking before bed about Ben Jonson and his comments in Discoveries--thinking some about his riff on Renaissance models of composition: inventio, dispositio, eloquentia, actio, memoria--invention (discovery of topic), dispositio (arrangement of the parts), eloquentia (dressing the piece in figures), actio (delivery), memoria (memorizing)--Jonson goes on at length somewhere at a place I cannot of course immediately find about figurative language being most like a person's attire.
Listening to Eavan Boland last night, I was thinking about how her poems seemed like subjects draped in folds of figure--the figures cut and measured and fitted to the subject. The subject underlies all here. What makes it poetry is the weave, measure, and cut of the fabric and upholstery. There are whole traditions of this type of writing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
But what about poems that are more like the act of something living growing? Where the poetry of it is in the growth and direction? Can poems simply figure discovery? I think so--Frank O'Hara, David Antin, WC Williams--Whitman, too. The emphasis here, to mix metaphors, on how the person animates the clothing--or on the person in the flesh . . . Whitman.
Jonson writes also: "Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind. No glass renders a man's form, or likeness, so true as his speech. Nay, it is likened to a man: and as we consider feature, and composition in a man; so words in language . . . " And he moves on to consider the standard points of style in Renaissance parlance.
I've always liked that formulation: "Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee," or, in Latin, as he notes in the margin, "Oratio imago animi." It seems most satisfying to me to think of the language coming out of the subject, coming out of the least known parts of the subject, then to think of the language covering the subject, draping it. Doesn't there seem to be a difference between these two methods of writing? It seems to me that there is. One privileges subject/topic/theme, another privileges the "act of"/discovery/language as action or activity.
Which brings me to another of my favorite quotations, which I also take out of context, as I did the Jonson. Stanley Fish in his essay on affective stylistics, which point is somewhere on the postmodern/deconstructionist/semiotics spectrum about meaning and language being totally at odds, and objectivity of analysis being a chimera, but, nonetheless, he talks about the reader's task as an 'experience,' an 'event', in which the reader asks not what the sentence means, but what it does, which is perhaps what I am trying to say about and failing. Only I'm trying to say it from a writer's perspective, not from a reader's perspective, as does Fish, in his previous incarnation as a famous professor of English rather than as a lawyer and columnist for the NY Times. Fish, in fact, wants to focus on "the reader rather than on the artifact."
Despite the fact that I repeatedly take this Fish quotation somewhat out of context, not entirely as Fish means it, I keep returning to it in my critical practice and my writing practice as a touchstone, a memento. That the purpose of language is activity, action, actio--that it is most alive in the act of reading, or when reading becomes an action in and of itself. That the reading and writing is not so much about uncovering meaning, illuminating meaning, seeking a theme (doesn't Yeats say as much in "The Circus Animals' Desertion"? I sought a theme, and sought for one in vain," or something of the sort), attiring an observation--that writing and reading is about enacting something, enacting language, charging it, giving it legs of its own, allowing it to wander about.
Fish writes, and this is my favorite, somewhat out of context part: "The great merit . . . of kinetic art is that it forces you to be aware of "it" as a changing object--and therefore no "object" at all--and also to be aware of yourself as correspondingly changing. Kinetic art does not lend itself to a static interpretation because it refuses to stay still and doesn't let you stay still either. In its operation it makes inescapable the actualizing role of the observer. Literature is a kinetic art, but the physical form it assumes prevents us from seeing its essential nature, even though we so experience it."
When I lose my way as a writer, or feel off the path, I find myself returning to this statement. Substitute "writing" for "literature": writing is a kinetic art. That's what I keep working at.