To Purify the Language of the Tribe

by Sydney Lea

The French poet Stephane Mallarmé once opined (and T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s objective was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately—less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm (1949), a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.

Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:

“One of the greater mischiefs which confront us today is the growing debasement of the language. Our speech is a mere shadow of its incomparable richness, having on the one hand become vulgarized and on the other corrupted with a particularly odious academic jargon. Now this is dangerous. A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.”

Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions…a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think the world nowadays is going to hell. But.

But think of automobile ads, just for one indicator. What is meant, say, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? Or “Love– it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback? Or, astoundingly annoying, “Guts. Glory. Ram,” as though to own a pickup truck were an exaltation. There are myriad other examples in other domains, of course, but you see where I’m headed.

This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, painstakingly and agonizingly constructed by a professor—Lord, help us—of English at a prestigious university; some years back, it justly won a Bad Writing Contest originated by Professor Denis Dutton:

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely. Harumph. I was raised and educated to believe that lucidity in expression was a virtue, not a sign of simplism.

In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me—hardly for the first time—that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.

We can turn to—well, blather, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not an overly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly—and all but exclusively to one another—that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.

Here’s Henry Beston again:

“When I am here by myself…, I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives…Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.”

But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, blather. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?

“A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.”

Yet there are greater dangers than mere inanity, and I fear they grow ever more acute in a technologized age. Blather can offend, and even wound, to be sure, but not so much as certain modes of cool calculation. The drift into disembodiment allows us to imagine the victims of military attack, for example, as statistics, not as living and breathing organisms, to look at citizens as parts of this or that voting bloc, not as individuals with their own idiosyncratic virtues and flaws.

Blather, that vicious cool, or—what? I guess the word that comes to mind is creepiness. On a recent trip to our Maine cabin, my wife and I picked up a Bangor paper at the village store. In its so-called family section, a young woman who had just borne her first child described how she was going to chronicle the little girl’s early years. The first thing she did was to open a Facebook account for her daughter, which would be waiting for her when the time came. She likewise established an email for the child, to whom she had been writing e-notes every two weeks. There were other cybernetic measures she meant to take, but I have mercifully forgotten them by now.

I am no Luddite, mind you. I have become more dependent on the Internet than I’d have dreamed even a decade ago. At the same time, just as we did our children, my wife and I have lately been savoring our little grandchildren, six of them now. This involves not only the (wearying) fun of frolicking, at a playground, in the woods, on the living room floor or wherever, more than snuggling close to them as we read bedtime stories and entertain their wonderful comments and questions. It also involves giving baths, wiping chins and bottoms, feeding and cleaning up after them– all those physical gestures, pleasant and otherwise, that go into close human interrelationships.

Emailing the kid before she can read a word? That is creepy, right?

Or am I just a superannuated, sentimental old fool?

The truth lies doubtless somewhere in between. Wherever it may lie, out my window just now, I see a small grebe diving under the surface of our pond and re-emerging, making small ripples that clash mildly with the wind-driven wavelets. The duck’s behavior seems enough, when I get right down to it, to make a day.

AGNI Monkey

author photo Big Falls_Sydney Lea, a former Pulitzer finalist, founded and for thirteen years edited the New England Review. His thirteenth collection of poems, Here, is due from Four Way Books this year. Likewise, in fall of 2018, Vermont’s Green Writers Press will publish The Music of What Happens: Lyric and Everyday Life, his collected newspaper columns from his years (2011-15) as Vermont Poet Laureate. In spring of ‘18, GWP has just re-issued his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Teaching Art to Scientists

Paul Christensen

For years I taught at a technical university, where all the real money for teaching and faculty recruitment went to the sciences, the engineering schools, the agricultural program, and then, like Oliver Twist’s bowl of gruel, a little bit for the humanities. The school was Texas A&M University, a fine house of learning with many excellent teachers and devoted students. I had no quarrel with its reputation or its massive federal grants for research in all manner of needed solutions to our lives. I once made the observation to some colleagues that our school was uniquely dedicated to deal with hunger, wild fires, epidemics, animal diseases, and pets. We had one of the best veterinary schools in the country; we had Norman Borlaug, the inventor of semi-dwarf wheat that saved India from starvation, and continues to feed arid countries in Africa. That was A&M, a fortress armed against the disasters of nature.

When asked at a cocktail party or a public lecture what I did on the campus, I always faced the same look of disappointment or confusion. “I’m an English Professor,” I would say. How English could possibly contribute to the stern rules of nature was beyond almost everyone. You measured, you weighed, you whirled things on the cyclotron, or hung them up on wires to watch how metabolism worked in a cockroach. I played jazz with a bass saxophonist who specialized in cockroach digestion. He was wonderful, British born, with twenty postdocs following him around his suite of labs like so many ducklings. He was short-listed for the Nobel in chemistry, but I haven’t heard if he ever received it.

On my first day of class, I would tell my students we were starting on a journey into the imagination, into the murky, secret corridors of human feeling, and the even more arcane depths of myth and symbol. The groans were audible; the boys especially seemed nervous and looked around at the girls, who were clearly in the majority. The girls were happy, and were already writing stuff down into their notebooks. The boys were going to stonewall me; they felt threatened, intimidated, disenfranchised by the subject matter, which had so little to do with logic and its myriad integers and connections. That was their pride, their source of strength, their armor against a world that might deceive them with tricks and intuition. I was used to their grim faces at first.

The weeks went by and the poems and stories they wrote were, for the most part, adamantly literal. They had no idea how to access this organ called the imagination. They might have applauded vigorously Hugh Kenner’s assertion that imagination was essentially empirical, and that art was based almost exclusively on experience! Modernism was the temple of empirical art, and everyone was a realist, a critic, a satirist of the actual world. When the postmodernists came along, dreams and fantasies were included in their esthetic, which made the new poetry and fiction seem almost impenetrable as forms of communication.

But I believed in dreams and myths, in the power of mind to combine the real and imaginary in a single work. So on we plunged toward boundaries of awareness, and each student struggled to justify a use of language that did not “prove” anything, except to say that other realities existed. I couldn’t convert everyone to my premise that language was a house of many worlds, but curiously, science fiction was very popular and I could use it as a reference to some of my most rigid engineers. Little by little, something else occurred in class—students began to enjoy this other mode of consciousness. It was like discovering a path in the woods that led nowhere but deeper into the trees. To make things up was liberating; it wasn’t like lying, which had a specific purpose. It was lying to amuse, to entertain, to drift out of the mundane world into miracles. Even if they couldn’t let themselves go fully, they saw the freedom of beginning a poem by saying, “I died, and rose out of my bed/ in the dark of night,/ and floated among the stars.” Others would sit and think about the language, whether it was wordy, or not vivid enough. Not whether such a statement was fact. It wasn’t.

We read Borges, and Neruda, Donald Barthelme, and snippets of Homer, Dante, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Emily Dickinson, Gogol, Kafka, Plath and Sexton. The more we talked, the more we seemed willing to believe in the world constructed out of such prose. There was a vast library of alternative realities out there, which most had never discovered before my class. They came to writing with high standards of accuracy and verifiability, but it turned into something different, a carefully constructed and plausible non-reality.

It made the facts of their other classes all the more curious and wonderful. A professor would lean over a lab bench and say that the solution was too rich or lean, or that the weight scale was off by a fraction of a gram. A math problem had slipped a cog deep in the intricacies of an equation, which made the whole argument false. A history professor dismissed an exam response of one of my students by calling it a willing fabrication of actual events. But it was only the date that was off, by a hundred years. In other words, students discovered that reality was a surface, an exact plane of calculations and facts, any of which broke the surface and revealed an ocean of oddities and wonders underneath.

Of course, they went back to the real world again after having me for a semester and left me alone with my alembics and coned hat sewn with stars. My robes trailed the ground of the classroom where I pondered strange mysteries and paradoxes. But some who had known me for such a brief time decided to become writers, to enter that secret garden of errant realities for good. My colleagues in creative writing were a kind of Hogwarts tucked in among the Lockean temples of absolute truth. We offered Piranesi’s staircases in place of Euclid’s ladders. And they restored the echoing past of the 17th century to the mind of the 21st.

AGNI Monkey

IMG_0200Paul Christensen has published eight collections of poems, most recently The Human Condition (Wings Press) and The Jack of Diamonds Is a Hard Card to Play (Lamar University Press). He was a NEA fellow in poetry, and is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. He lives in Vermont and spends his summers in southern France. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Mine Own Neruda

by William Archila

I was ten and my father was gone, already living here in the States, when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to listen to a strange voice coming out of the transistor radio. It was Pablo Neruda reciting his love poems while violins and guitars played in the background. For two years I fell asleep to the voice of Neruda rising and falling like waves in the distance, like seagulls swooping down, my head filling with poetry.

The broadcast was interrupted in November, 1980, when I fled El Salvador and the war that was tearing my country apart. I was twelve years old. I arrived in Los Angeles, California, with many questions unanswered, conversations unfinished and years of my young life unfulfilled. I gave up much of my national culture and Spanish language to learn a new culture and language. My English was full of street vernacular and strong raw accents—my words squashed, shredded, forced to dance a Shakespearian rag. I became part of the growing immigrant community, speaking ghetto Spanish. “Go back to your country” echoed throughout these years. Ahead a long road stretched into darkness.

In high school I began writing long before I read any poetry that excited me. My writings were fragments—verses and scribbles not meant to be taken seriously or shared. I pursued this calling in secret, writing only for myself. In college I tried to read the masters of the English language: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, but none of them spoke to me—or maybe I wasn’t ready to listen. It wasn’t until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I was amazed to discover I was not the only young man who saw the best minds of his generation destroyed.

In 1992, after a peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador hoping to find a home, but instead found a war-torn country full of poverty, death, illiteracy, and crime. All my friends and family members were gone, especially those who were capable of changing a society. I was searching for something that no longer existed—a quality remembered from childhood, a sense of belonging to a country and a language. But these had changed. And I had changed. I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I returned to California and bounced between LA and San Francisco, feeling rootless and without home. Yet that yearning for a sense of home—for union with my country, my family, for other Central American immigrants—grew deep inside me. To cope with these feelings of exile, I needed to write what I could not voice. That’s when I consciously began to write poems.

Within a year of discovering Ginsberg, I rediscovered Pablo Neruda. From poems such as “Walking Alone,” I learned to take the pencil and run across the pages, like a horse galloping across Latin America. I could remember the tree outside my childhood window, the fragile eggs boxed in my mother’s store, the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and the moon bending over the neighborhood. I could go outside, feel the cracks of the street and remember my small country of El Salvador.

Neruda demanded more breadth, more precision, more memory of home in my reading and writing. I became interested in writers who sense home as a source of identity more than as a refuge: Pessoa’s Portugal, Neruda’s Chile, Rushdie’s India, Levine’s Detroit, Whitman’s American soil, and Roethke’s North America.

Neruda’s “Residence on Earth” helped me understand that the identity of the exile writer is homelessness and its attendant loneliness. As an exile writer you try to recreate your home in your work. Of course, you never can. You create fictions instead. But in this trajectory, in this country, I never travel alone. I travel with Neruda.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, AGNl, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


“All the Deceits of the World”: Poetry and Spirituality

by Emilia Phillips

In the waist-roped, white linen robe that, in my monthly service, denuded me of choice for church dress, I creaked across the wooden altar to the pulpit in St. Peter’s, which built itself upon the rock of high Anglican ceremony and socially liberal mores. In, I’d processed with the crucifix ahead of Father Paden, and now I would read the first scripture, from Matthew Chapter 6—“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…”—and onward, Let us pray, and we knelt, and we rose, and we knelt; and we voiced our scripted supplications from The Litany—“From all the inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver usand so on into the vague remembered of what-usually-happened those Sundays. Many years later, as I drafted a poem for my first book, these memories shepherded me into the notion that “The first love poems I knew were // prayers.” God the Beloved, God the unrequited. This gesture of ars poetica codifies, if not complicates, my lifelong but allusive association of poetry—or, at least, beautiful and rhythmic language—with spirituality.

Although my faith in the Christian God went dark long ago, my faith in mystery—the great Ineffable—remains and, through poetry, swells. For me, spirituality is the belief in, acceptance, and willing experience of the unknown, and reading poetry is an ecstatic exercise in blind-leading-the-blind agnosticism. The poetry I value most, perhaps paradoxically, allows for, yet draws close to what can’t be said, the ineffabilis, the “not utterable.”

I’ve never encountered a poet of the Ineffable quite like Emily Dickinson:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it

The “certain Slant of light” provides the tone through which the speaker reads experience. It and its effects are inexplicable, “None may teach it”; yet, in another paradox, Dickinson describes the experience by saying it cannot be described. This gesture is kin to the notion that one knows God better by admitting one cannot fathom God, the infinite “I am.” Dickinson invites the ineffable into her act of utterance, exposing the limitation of that utterance and, therefore, the self, furthermore allowing the self to transcend the bounds of utterance so that the self is author of what is said and what cannot be said.

All of this reminds me of the contemporary poet and Catholic mystic Fanny Howe’s writings on bewilderment. Howe invokes the concept as an ethics and poetics rooted, I think, in Samuel Johnson’s 1752 use of “bewilder” to mean “To lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” It means, quite literally, to be or become wilder. Howe writes:

“In the Dictionary, to bewilder is ‘to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.’
“The wilderness as metaphor is in this case not evocative enough because causing a complete failure in the magnet, the compass, the scale, the stars and the movement of the rivers is more than getting lost in the woods.
“Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.”

Bewilderment, the argument against context; the unknown acting upon or erasing the known. Bewilderment as perfect spirituality.

So, how does one come to—or, rather, into—bewilderment? How is one bewildered? Can poetry bewilder us?

On our way home from supper tonight, as my husband drove, I rode with my head out the passenger’s side window, like I often do when I’m out of words. I removed my glasses, and the world I knew receded to vagary. (Vagary, I should note, comes from the Latin vagari, “wander.”) The wind filled my ears, and the sound and motion allowed me to transcend my body, the day’s narrative, even ego. Moments like these, in which I am humbled to a trance induced by rhythm and sound, have brought me as close to true bewilderment, I believe, as I’ve ever felt. Here, I’m instinct rather than intellect. I have invited the unknown into the known.

Poetry, like the car ride with one’s head out the window, can offer the bewilderment of motion, vagary, and noise. The poetry of bewilderment appeals to the senses to allow the self to be unconscious of the senses—that is, the known. I’m most aware of my senses (“the deceits of the world, the flesh”) when those senses are overloaded—as they are with pain, blinding light, or deafening noise—or when they are not appealed to—as happens in a dark room when I can’t see or when I have a stuffy nose and can’t smell. For poetry to bewilder, and therefore become a spiritual engagement, it must balance meaning (utterance), silence (the ineffable), and sound (the senses).

Returning to Dickinson, whose poetry owes much to the composition of prayers, we find this trinitas at work. We have what the poem is trying to say—winter light causes me to be depressed—and the allowed ineffable—but I have no idea why, except that it seems to connect me to some unknowable, perhaps divine, misfortune—delivered through highly rhythmic and musical verse. Like the scenes in MacBeth featuring Shakespeare’s Three Witches (sans Hecate), Dickinson’s poem renders divine disorder—and, furtively, her unease—through largely trochaic lines, an inversion of the heartbeat-like iambic pattern; furthermore, Dickinson emphasizes this instability with additions and substitutions that don’t allow for a full number of feet per line and that stress the lines’ final syllables, an effect (somewhat problematically) referred to as a “masculine ending”:

/            ˘  |   /     ˘   |      /       ˘     |         /

There’s a     certain       Slant of     light                    Three and a half trochaic feet

/       ˘   |   /   ˘ |      /

Winter     After     noons –                                        Two and a half trochaic feet

In the same way that the ineffable is allowed into the uttered, Dickinson gives us regularity in the midst of irregularity through her rhyme scheme, ABAB CDCD, where the A and C rhymes (light/heft, us/difference) are slant rhymes, and B and D are true rhymes (noons/Tunes, scar/are). The poem’s regularity gives shape to its irregularity and, therefore, produces an effect on the reader analogous to someone running across a collapsing bridge; with every step, the stones fall away from order into disorder. Perhaps this is the way in which poetry offers us a kind of bewilderment and connects us spiritually with the unknown: it gives us the tools of navigation, but then the compass starts to spin, the scale dips to one arm and then another, the stars confuse, and the rivers flood out of their paths.

In chapel one Wednesday, for I also went to St. Peter’s School, I watched the rain twisting like clear snakes over the windows while I absently sang “Seek Ye First,” a hymn derived from Matthew 6:33, with the other children. The rain I imagined rising to deluge, rising up to flood St. Peter’s even though it was on a hill, so that I would be stranded there to make a small fire from dried palms, to eat communion wafers and drink wine in the rafters, to paddle the halls in a canoe I carved from a pew—a plague, a miracle. Imaginative impulses, like the imagined flood, were the closest I came to knowing God and among my first experiences of writing, and they came out of a backdrop of utterance—“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, singing Hal-le-lu-halle-lu-jah”—and what couldn’t be uttered, of getting lost in thought, bewildered: of inviting the unknown into the known. When I wrote about this moment in my second book, I responded to my first book’s idea that the first love poems I knew were prayers; this time, I realized that the first and perhaps truest love poem was that of absence, what couldn’t be put into words.

All These Things Shall Be Added Unto You

In chapel I castled in air a flood
from rain that forked on the windows

silver and sheeted in gusts
to mirrors flashing moments,

and although the school was
citadeled on a hill, I imagined the halls

as canals I paddled with canoes carved
from pews—my oars

the crucifix and torch, my life
vest fashioned from the Common

Prayers. I camped in
the rafters and made hand-sized fires

of palms ignited by match and oil. At night I
would drink myself to my first

drunk on communion
red and spread Peter

Pan on the wafers. My daydream then
was not of love, though the stairs

became a waterfall, the computer monitors—
conchs on the lakebed, silent,

their green hypnotic
now dark. The organ pipes were dead

coral that burbled when I dove
from the nave to plunge

its keys. I once said
that prayer was the first form

of love
poem I knew, but before prayer there was

absence. I drowned the other
sticky children

pewed alphabetically
on either side of me

in absence—their bodies not
floating facedown, unrescued by their parents

or the Coast
Guard. They were simply

gone with the flash flood
like the masses in Noah’s time that we never heard

knocking against the hull
or discovered in trees

bloated and winking, petal eyed
like Benny Goodman.

Noah didn’t survive
long after the ark. The water,

we know now, was
poisoned by us.

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Emilia-HS-8.15-5785-1Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), from the University of Akron Press, and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and essays appear in Agni, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She has received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and elsewhere. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College (NJ) and the 32 Poems interviews editor. Her poem “All These Things Shall Be Added Unto You” was originally published in Waxwing. Find out here what she’s published at AGNI.