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Tuesday, March 11, 2003

While I'm making up for the last week of dismal sickness with no brain, here's what I think is the final of the poem I posted at the end of February. Thanks to the Eratosphere for help on this one.

Dancing Lesson

A slow country waltz, his wife 3 states away,
And Grace is closer than he'd meant to hold her
             Just a moment past--
It's hard, and when she whispers, "It's OK,"
He checks a groan as all at once he knows
             She won't be the last.

And no, my wife hasn't seen it yet. So I'm a coward.

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This piece on blurbs by Joan Houlihan generated a lot of comment on one of the poetry mailing lists a few weeks ago, and once again I'm grateful to Arts & Letters Daily for bringing it back to my attention. I haven't been reading at Web del Sol lately, so I didn't know it was the sixth part of a series on "How Contemporary American Poets are Denaturing the Poem." She sounds like me when I'm feeling cranky.

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By way of Arts & Letters Daily, Daniel Dennett's "Postmodernism and Truth" at Butterflies and Wheels reminds me that last week I meant to declare myself a Rhodian (except I'm not sure that I might like to live on the Island of Rhodes). How's that for links? And how did an essay on epistemology remind me of Henry Gould?

Here's the basic Rhodian credo:

  • Of Minimalism. The Rhodians accept a simple definition of poetry, ie.: Poetry = rhythmic/measured language.
  • Of Continuity. The Rhodians believe that poetry as an art form is distinguished by its continuity. "Poetry is avant-garde because it doesn't change much."
  • Of Purpose. The Rhodians maintain that there is no particular "correct" way to make poetry. But this does not preclude the Rhodians from choosing certain principles and orientations.

The last item is the connection to Dennett, and it's worth quoting in full (but just because I put this bit here doesn't mean you shouldn't go right over to Henry's blog and read everything he's written there):

One such principle is that poetry-making involves a limited, but sufficient - and self-sufficient - autonomy. If the process is not valuable for its own sake it is not worth doing at all, since it makes no claim to be valuable for any other reason. (Here the Rhodians follow the orientation of fellow Rhodian, and former Cranston native, Ted Berrigan.) Another such principle is that poetic autonomy is linked with a realist approach. Rhodians reject sceptical trends which question our ability to posit the existence of a real world outside our verbal formulations (even though Rhodians would like to reside on an island). Rhodians assert their ability to make true statements about the real world, and assent to the influence of that capability on their poetry. In fact Rhodians believe that the human impulse to respond to reality, in all its consciousness and specificity, is something of an artistic opportunity for which they can be grateful. Finally, the Rhodians reject theories of poetics which devalue the communicative function, reifying denatured words upon the page. For the Rhodians, language is essentially communicative - the propositional, interrogatory, evaluative, expressive making of signs. Within the continuum of such gestures, words play a combinatory and supportive role. So, while recognizing the special quality of language in art and poetry - the "focus on message" or reflexive aspect described by Jakobson - Rhodians acknowledge the fundamental semaphoric aspect of the medium.

Dennett puts this fundamental insight into evolutionary perspective, noting that getting it right was literally life or death for our ancestors for billions of years, and goes on to say "bridging of the gap between appearance and reality is a wrinkle that we human beings alone have mastered." Which brings me to this poem of Richard Wilbur, nearly perfect except the "senseless wit":


Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles ore there,
And so may weave and flutter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the veriest happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

I don't know that I could have passed up "senseless wit" either.

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