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Ekphrastic poetry is my subject once again. Featuring my own stuff again, too, I fear—but mainly (I swear) as a way of honoring wonderful poems by others, such as the following “weaving” by my friend Kathy Ernst:
Here’s what I wrote about this in The Facts On File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry edited by Burt Kimmelman (2005): “A particularly charming specimen of these (weavings) consists of the sentence ‘I feel so nice, like thousands of tiny boats,’ printed 22 times left to right and 22 times sideways and perpendicular to (and on top of) the right-to-left lines. Most of the lines are in shades of blue, but a few are in red (or violet). So what do we have? A silly, banal-seeming, but absolutely just-right expression of contentment: the warmth of a woven blanket, childhood delight (from the tiny boats, whether toy or real), harbored security (since you rarely see many boats except in harbors), sea-gentleness (from the colors and the rhythm of the printing), energetic cheerfulness (from the colors) and, finally, fun (due to the overprinted text’s needing to be figured out).”
I would now add that probably the best thing about Ernst’s text is its shockingly unashamed, “silly, banal-seeming” pure dumbness. It’s so direct, so simple. But it’s rescued—as well as multiplied—by the simile attached to it, which is wonderfully absurd, since boats can’t feel. Needless to say, though, we know the lines are not saying that, but conveying how the boats, the tiny boats, would feel, if they could feel. The power of the ellipsis.1
While thinking as a mathexpressive poet about Ernst’s text, I find a parallel between weaving and multiplication that fascinates me. Isn’t her poem the same as
(I feel so happy, like thousands of tiny boats)2
And note well that the term squared is in black&white, its square a variety of colors!
I suppose my response to Ernst’s poem is much more a variation on it than an ekphrastic commentary on it. I think I felt I’d be stealing too much if I appropriated her whole poem, although that didn’t keep me from appropriating a whole poem from Robert Lax for a poem in the last entry. Maybe it was that I knew Kathy but didn’t know Robert, who had died by the time I appropriated his poem. In any case, I mostly feel that Kathy had found something wonderful to play with, so I took advantage of it –the way I hope others will one day take advantage of my long-division toy and anything else I may have found for poetry.
To begin to try to make sense of my poem (and knowing what I’ve told you in advance bout Kathy and her weavings), it’s easy to see that its sub-dividend product does not refer directly to her feeling nice poem or any other specific weaving, but to her weavings in general. It seems to be trying its best to celebrate what such a weaving does by mechanically imitating one by taking differently-color repetitions of a single poetic line and . . . weaving them into a square. A mundane start, to be sure, but I hope it does more.
One thing I try to bring out is what such a square is—but not too openly, for I always prefer my meanings to be discovered by a reader rather than shoved at him. Except when my goal is teaching my sort of long division by perhaps over-intensive analysis of an example of it—as now. So, to continue shoving, let me say that according to the way long division works, my example of it states that a weaving is woods—when meshings of “wxy” is added to it. In three shades of brown since woods are not usually only the colors of my square. I claim “wxy,” twice repeated, also will strongly suggests woods with three ways somewhere in them—so navigable . . . or somewhat navigable since the ways are misspelled!
I remember when I came up with “wxy” that the three letters’ location in the alphabet seemed important to me, but now I can’t remember why. Perhaps that goes along with the idea of their spelling “way”—because providing alphabetic ordering to the woods. But also unused letters. And it is important that “wxy” is a fresh “word,” too—an errntlexeme you most certainly need to know. That, in my poetics, is a word in a poem that seems not to make any sense at first but gradually does, in the process enlivening the poem.
Maybe I was thinking of “wxy” as an approach to End of the Alphabet, or the finish line of linguistic expressiveness? I know I had something Really Profound in mind!
Meanwhile, what about the books and flutes? How does books times the sound of flutes (in cursive, it’s important to know!) equal an Ernst weaving? That’s almost too simple to bother with. (I’m now standing ten feet from my keyboard, looking Extremely Superior.) If you only loosen your rationality a little! Books are knowledge, flutes music: what more can a superior poem be than the multiplication of the one by the other? Remember, too, what instrument Pan, the sylvan god, played. . . .
Dang, reflecting on what I just wrote, I have concluded my quotient should be “the sound of a flute”—Pan alone! I will leave the uncorrected version here as a lesson to anyone coming to me to learn how to become a Poetic Eminence that not even the best poems of poets like me should even be consider finished—although you, of course, have to abandon them unfinished when you’re finished!
Okay, my take on my own poem is not all that rational, but poetry’s is not intended to make sense (except by Philistines) but make enough sense. I’d be very disappointed, though, if I haven’t said enough sane things about the poem to convince you how much I cherish the equation of Kathy Ernst’s weavings as woods crackling into words in a world where no words existed before, and clarifying into meanings everywhere—and into shapes and color beyond meanings!
Another visual poet, Karl Young, has produced a number of poems I find similar in many ways to Ernstian weavings. Among them are the 3 sections of the 8-part segment from his “Clouds Over Fortjade” shown above.
Like other segments of this masterwork, it is based on a poem from a distant time and place, in this case, Wang Wei’s “After Sunset.” Karl, by the way, is as keen a student of his own work as I am of mine. There is no better writing on it, and on visual poetry in general, than his at the light&dust website (http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/lighthom.htm) he founded (which is by far the best site on the Internet for the full continuum of contemporary poetry), and in writing to be seen (2001), the sadly un-acclaimed anthology of visual poetry that I and Crag co-edited and Karl’s work here is from (as are a selection of Kathy’s works).
I might add that Karl is also like me with regard to how much he uses other poets’ work. Indeed, he goes far beyond me, for where I use the work of other poets, he uses the work of other traditions!
Before jumping into the portion of “Clouds Over Fortjade” above, I’d like to take a side-step into the famous poem by one of my two favorite early 20th-century American poets, E. E. Cummings below:
When John Cooper, a friend of mine to whom I will be forever grateful, showed me this one morning a year after we’d escaped high school, I immediately dismissed it. A few hints later, John had broken my near-invincible blockheadedness—so thoroughly that I instantly became a permanent zealot of visual poetry. I bring this little story up partly just to introduce Cummings’s wonderful poem to anyone not familiar with it (and to reassure those who have the kind of trouble I had with visual poems at first), but more relevantly, to bring attention to the simple but easy-to-overlook large value of the way its words, and those of the Fortjade segments break with left-to-right convention to descend a page vertically. This is not just a trivial way of doing something different (although it is significantly that, as well) but nudges one into performing a metaphor. In the case of Cummings’s poem, one doesn’t just see his leaf fall, one follows it down the page! In the case of Karl Young’s poems, one doesn’t just see them, one descends down the page with them—one kinesthetically experiences them as tapestries (from the same textile district Kathy Ernst created her weavings in, I might add).3
The glide down near-perfectly harmonizes with the haiku-deep imagery in the three scenes from louds Over Fortjade” that are brought to life. The quiet, the sense of security, the snow . . . And, so crucial but easy to miss, the merger the texts make possible with the long-gone people of a land and life almost nothing like ours . . . but almost exactly like ours.4
Just as my poem about Kathy Ernst’s weaving is not so much about it as about the kind of poem it is, my “Long Division for Karl Young,” is not about the three texts of his so far discussed, or the one coming up, but about their kind, which I hope I won’t be taking as insulting by calling “vertical lyriku.” A “lyriku” is what I call a haiku or something so close to a haiku that I yearn to call it a haiku but can’t because it would upset too many haiku-lovers and makers. Such as the following, “From Li Po’s Night Thoughts,” which may be the very best of Karl’s, although he’s made too many firstest-rate ones to say for sure:
You’re on your own with this one. Note, though, that it is more complicated than the portions of “Clouds Over Fortjade” . . . visio-syntactically. I just made up that word. I get a lot of criticism for doing things like that but is there a term for the way one visually orders a poem on the page? And does the term not make clear than I’m speaking of the poem’s going both left-to-right, and down the page? Note, too, the two split texts.
About my own analysis/celebration of what Karl has done verti-lexically (sorry, couldn’t help it), I won’t say too much. Mostly, I just repeat visio-syntactic tactics (no comment) of his, hoping for some of the haiku magic his achieved. I don’t know whether he used mirror-lettering or not, but would be surprised if not. Anyway, my poem does. And I stick with the West. No, on second thought I see that I use a sort of Eastern meditativeness along with Western mythology to come up with my impression of what Karl’s hanging-text poems do. To my surprise, I see that I also use geography right in the middle of the two. The lesson here: how one can accidentally get things surprisingly right—if one is lucky.
One detail I guess I ought to point out to help an explorer of my poem is the use of mirror-images of text to try to suggest the negativization through reversal of imagery to multiply Persephone, the immortal I worship more than any other, to yield her absolute opposite, Hades. (I hope, incidentally, that none will confuse the latter with the Christian Hell instead of “just” where the dead go, although still far from a cheerful abode.)
* * * * *
1 Sometimes in these musings of mine, I sneak in little lessons for newcomers to poetry that I hope won’t annoy the more knowledgeable. This one is about the ellipsis, which is a major player in almost any poem, for it is the omission of a word or group of words not necessary for the comprehension of a text. When used in poetry, one might revise the definition to “omission of words not necessary for comprehension by a skilled reader of poetry,” for sometimes a poem’s ellipsis is quite subtle. Its function is to correct that which is on the surface wrong—as all metaphors are, for instance. Take “the guard was a stone wall in defense of his quarterback”; the guard was not a stone wall, but the claim is corrected for the skilled reader by the invisible but present ellipsis, “like,” before “a stone wall,” and its continuation, “in strength,” afterward. Hence, it is not true however often said, that poetry lies.
2 My interpretation of “wxy” is pretty strained: for me it represents a garbled rendering of “way,” my thought being that the addition of ways (plural because “wxy” is printed thrice) to the undarkening words makes the woods adventuringly gracious—i.e., keeps it from being the forbidding tangle woods can be. But it also adds mystery, uncertainty, a wrong language to the woods, to work against their being too accessible, too easily solved and conquered—for the woods and my square and the Ernst weavings are all poems, and this poem of mine being, like so many of my poems, ultimately about poetry.
3 This is not a footnote, dummy! It signifies “square,” or the multiplication of something by itself once.
4 Or so I claim. And I claim it scientifically on the grounds that it should soon become falsifiable, if not already, by brain scans showing whether the kinesthetic portion of the brain of a person reading one of the texts discussed shows activity it doesn’t show when reading horizontal texts.
5 This is the sixteenth Brilliant Observation about poetry I’ve made in the course of bringing these entries to you, dear readers. Why am I still not famous? 6
6 Rhetorical question, rhetorical question!!! I don’t wanna hear no answer!7
7 This is a big footnote. None of my academic competitors would have been able to pull it off!7
8 I am a megalomaniac. Unlike one of my greatest heroes, Fred Nietzsche, however, I can disguise it fairly well most of the time.
9 Here’s some help in case the print on the screen is too faint to make out: “Dreams rolling through shadows home” and “Our flowers of enormous fire,” one going left-to-right as well as downward, the other going right-to-left as well as downward, as they dance into a oneness not possible to express anywhere but in a visual poem.
Previously in this series: