Monday, December 22, 2008

Movement and lyric time

I got together with some writer friends on Sunday--fiction writers!  We were talking about narrative time, and I mentioned, in passing, how challenging and intellectually interesting I find the act of manipulating poetic time.  While narrative poetry is still written, the lyric is the dominant mode in poetry.  In addition, I think the concept of lyric time pervades contemporary poetry altogether, even when one is writing with an eye to narrative, to the passage of time.  

Which reminds me, I need to return to Virginia Jackson's Dickinson's Misery, which may help me grapple with some of these questions.  Jennie was a teacher of mine at Middlebury when I was a senior--many years ago--and it was remarkable to see in her award-winning critical work the root issues she was grappling with so long ago, issues that were also shaping my consciousness as a writer and reader.  

What I am about to say is perhaps not my best thought.  It's my quarter to midnight kind of thought.  I've been thinking about poems as assemblages for the last few years.  As a verbal mimesis of visual art.  At the moment, this seems linked to struggles with time to me.  But how could that be?  An assemblage exists in space and in the familiar lyric "moment of time," right?  But an assemblage has multiple sides.  You can walk around it.  There are different perspectives.  Perhaps it has moving parts.  That is, your experience of it as a viewer/reader must participate in 'time' in some way--you must reconcile aspects of it, move in time and space around it, etc.  

Time and poetry are complicated.  One of the dominant reading aesthetics within the poetry world is the lyric--the still moment, the Keatsian lovers caught in mid-rush on the vase.  Narrative poetry sometimes seems to connect these 'lyric' moments like beads on a string.  This is, perhaps, an effort to make time still, to freeze it.  

Oh, there are all kinds of counter-arguments, things to think about.  Poems have movement through lineation, through the cross-page and downward momentum.  If movement equals time.  Which, I guess, is what I'm suggesting.  That movement carries on its back the concept of 'time,' which is really just a marking and measuring device, right?

What is more desirable?  [Ha!  I'm going to read Susan Sontag next on aesthetics and erotics.] Is it more desirable to stay still, unchanging?  Or to move and change?  Immutability.  Mutability.  Perhaps the tension of the poem resides between the two.  

I have another teacher/advisor who always warns me against setting up straw men.  Should I do that right now?  Straw man: do we read a poem to achieve a state of stillness (complete understanding),  do we read to lock something down or into place?  The straw man part is that I feel uneasy with this idea at the moment.  I'm not just talking about interpretation here--I'm also thinking about the poem being a closed space--or a series of interlocking parts that create a whole.  The New Critics.  

The New Critics vs. the Structuralists, the Semioticians, the Deconstructionists.  Do we read a poem to engage in a state of motion?  Do the words push and pull against one another?  Can you write from that place, that place of movement and motion and against lyric time--or can you just read and critically engage a text with that methodology?  Can you write with a movement that acts against lyric timelessness/stillness?  Or is that antithetical to "poem" itself these days?  

Stanley Fish, for example, when he used to be a lit scholar, writes in "Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics" of 'kinetic art,' a concept I like to misquote and sort of, probably mischaracterize--that literature is kinetic art because it moves across and down the page, the words recede to one another and supersede each other, the the poem actualizes as a kinetic act in the consciousness of the reader.  But that's from the perspective of critical analysis, not writing.  

No answers this evening on such broad topics.  But my friend sent me the following quote, which comes back full circle, possibly, to lyric time:

This morning I was looking through books for my class, and saw this in the introduction to Shklovsky's "Theory of Prose," which reminded me of what you were saying about time and poetry vs fiction -- "A poetic universe is, philosophically speaking, a universe of correspondences.  In a poetic universe, every fragment is a luminous detail.  It resonates with the super-sensuous.  It is in perpetual transport from the everydayness of its material appearance to the sphere of the transcendental where it is really located, and its impact upon consciousness constitutes a moment of vision or the sense of the totality of all that is.  There are overarchings everywhere.  But a prose universe is just one damn thing after another, like an attic or junkyard or side of the road." 

Hmmm.  Assemblages like a universe of correspondences?  That's assembly.  But "transport" only in the reception and interpretation?  And here again, the "moment of vision" and "totality."  Tension between movement and stasis, but the emphasis is on stasis, which is my straw man this evening.  Do we look for stasis at the expense of movement and time?

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