Aristotle’s Poetics 1448b

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about poetry lately.  In an end-of-semester bout of insomnia last night my thoughts wandered towards Aristotle’s Poetics.  This section, 1448b, is a discussion of the origins of poetry and the Greek word mimesis.  Translation is my own:

There seems to be altogether two natural causes for the origins of poetry.  It is innate for men to imitate and from childhood they differ from other animals in this capability—that imitation is possible and they first form learning through imitation; and everyone takes pleasure in imitations.  The indication of this is carried out in our actions: some things are painful to look at, but if we look at their exact likeness instead we can take pleasure in them—for example, the shape of very deformed wild beasts, or corpses.  The reason for this is that it is not only pleasant for philosophers to learn, but it is similarly pleasant for everyone else to learn, although most people have a shorter experience with this.  People take pleasure in observing likenesses because it comes upon us to learn from and to make inferences about those things we observe—what each thing is like and that this person is like that person:  and if we should happen to see before us the original, it is not the imitation that brings us pleasure,  but its workmanship or appearance or some other such cause.

Needless to say there are so many aspects of this short paragraph to ponder over.

 

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She is the Spider, not the Fly: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

The breadth of Michael Schmidt’s 600 page, 64 chapter book Lives of the Poets is so extensive that he had to make the biographical sketches of each poet rather succinct and brief.  But this brevity does not detract from the joyful experience of reading his work because one gets the sense that he chooses every word he writes on the page carefully and he makes every sentence, every paragraph significant. He says, for instance, about Emily Dickinson,

Life, time, nature and eternity are the big counters she moves about the rapid little quatrain squares of her verse, but each counter she makes her own through metaphor and her vivid subversions of expectation. ‘Her wit is accuracy,’ says the poet Alison Brackenbury, but ‘She is the spider, not the fly.’ Not being the fly: perhaps that was her strategy of withdrawal from a world in which she saw women snared in the strict geometries of the social web, and decided that for her the freedom of an elected solitude—not of a spinster only but of a recluse—was preferable, even necessary.

Schmidt points out that scholars over the years have come up with a myriad of reasons for her self-imposed solitude—from being rejected by a man or a woman to suffering from agoraphobia—all of which are mere speculations.  “We have the legend,” Schmidt writes, “but the crucial facts in the recorded life are absent.”  Schmidt first becomes aware of Dickinson’s poems at the age of fourteen when Robert Frost visits his school and recites one of her poems aloud; from that point forward he grapples with what, exactly, makes her poems so unique. “Dickinson’s reticence seems part of her poetic strategy: if we could assign the poems to specific emotional events, we would ground them. As it is, they are a miracle and a mystery of language.”

For eight decades editors of her poetry have stripped out Dickinson’s original punctuation; they have been especially targeted her dashes, taking all of them out of her poems.  Editors have also corrected her diction and substituted lower cases letters at the points where in her original poems she had used capitals. The Thomas H. Johnson edition in 1955 restored her original formats for all the poems and it was only then, Schmidt argues, that we finally began to understand her unique voice: “Here is her originality, unmuffled after eight decades of propriety, an irregularity that answers to the darting, tentative process of the poet’s sight and feeling, the rapid transformations that follow an unfolding argument or feeling. Dickinson’s poetry is the drama of process.”

I was reading Dickinson’s collection of Envelope Poems alongside Schmidt’s chapter and even in these poetic fragments one feels her “rapid transformations.” The majority of these envelope poems were written between 1870 and 1885. I found them equally as powerful as her longer, more formal poems. It seems fitting for her that they were jotted down on corners or backs of envelopes.

A139 Begins:
As old as Woe—
How old is that?
Some Eighteen
thousand years—
As old as
Bliss
Joy—

This edition has photos of the original envelopes and transcriptions of each text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And A317 begins:
On that
specific Pillow
Our projects
flit away-
The Nights’
Trememdous
Morrow
And whether
Sleep will stay
Or usher us—
a Stranger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m glad to have much more Dickinson and Schmidt to read going into my summer holidays.

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The Poet in Solitude: Propertius 1.18

Propertius 1.18

(Translation is my own)

This, certainly, is a deserted spot,  a quiet place for my complaints

and an empty grove only possessed by the light breeze of the west wind.

In this place it is freely permitted for me to pour forth my hidden pain;

that is if the lonely rocks are able to keep my trust.

At what point, my Cynthia, should I first repeat the tale of your

scornful contempt?  How did you make me start crying in the first place,

Cynthia?  I was just recently counted among the number of happy lovers,

but now I am forced to bear the mark of shame because of your love.

What have I done to deserve this? What crime have I committed that has

turned you against me?  Is the worry of a new woman the cause for your distance?

If you return yourself to me, cold woman, then and I can assure you that

no other woman has set her fair feet on my doorstep.   Even though in

my distress I have every right to be harsh with you, nevertheless, my savage anger

will not be released upon you and cause you to have perpetual fury against me or to weep

so many floods of tears that those eyes of yours should become ugly.

Or could it be that I give almost no signs of my feelings by the expression

on my face, or that no cries of loyalty towards you ever cross my lips?

Oh you trees, if you are capable of love,  you will be my witnesses—beech trees

and pine trees, beloved by the Arcadian god.   Ah, how often my words echo

under your shades, and how often the name “Cynthia” is written on the

thin bark of your trunks!  Ah, how your injury has caused me great anxiety,

an anxiety which is only increased by your silent door!

As a timid man I have accustomed myself to forebear all the demands of a

haughty woman and not to complain about her deeds through my melodious

grief.  I am given, for all of this grief, endless mountains, frigid rock, and the harsh

silence of an uncultivated wilderness.  Whatever of my complaints I am able

to narrate aloud, I, alone, am forced to say these things to the chirping birds.

And whoever you are, let the forests echo back to me my calling of “Cynthia”

and may the deserted rocks never be free from your name.

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Drawing is Discovery: Landscapes by John Berger

Study for the Head of Leda. Drawing by Da Vinci. 1505-1507.

I’ve spent the week reading the essays in this collection compiled by Tom Overton which were written by John Berger between 1954 and 2015.  The range of topics that Berger thinks and writes about is, to say the least, impressive.  Cubism, Renaissance Art, the Victorian Conscience and Soviet era aesthetics are a few subjects he covers.  My favorite pieces, however, were the two short essays on drawing.  Berger describes, through personal stories and anecdotes three categories of drawing: those done from memory, those that study and question the visible and those that record and communicate ideas.

There is a more personal and intimate quality to drawing then, say, painting, Berger argues:

“…the lines on the paper are traces left behind by the artist’s gaze which is ceaselessly leaving, going out, interrogating the strangeness, the enigma, of what is before his eyes—however ordinary and everyday this may be. The sum total of the lines on the paper narrates an optical emigration by which the artist, following his own gaze, settles on the person or tree or animal or mountain being drawn. And if the drawing succeeds he stays there forever.”

“For the artist, drawing is discovery,” is how Berger begins his essay “The Basis of all Painting and Sculpture is Drawing.”  He uses a personal story of drawing a nude in one of his very early art classes to, once again, demonstrate the intimacy involved in the act of drawing:

Then, quite soon, the drawing reached its point of crisis.  Which is to say that what I had drawn began to interest me as much as what I could still discover.  There is a stage in every drawing when this happens.  And I call it a point of crisis because at that moment the success or failure of the drawing has really been decided.  One now begins to draw according to the demands, the needs, of the drawing.  If the drawing is already in some small way true, then tese demands will probably correspond to what one might still discover by actual searching.  If the drawing is basically false, they will accentuate its wrongness.”

My first experience with Berger was Bento’s Sketchbook, which includes several of the author’s drawings and sketches.  I am due for a reread and will, no doubt, have a deeper appreciation for his writings and drawings after my experiences with the essays in Landscapes.

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How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

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