Saturday, February 8, 2014

empty zones

Poetry makes nothing happen.
~ W.H. Auden

That seems to say poetry is impractical, not utilitarian.  For sure, poetry with a political agenda is artistic waywardness. I think Auden's statement also says something else, and deeper.

From Joseph Brodsky's poem "New Life" comes this:

                                    Ultimately, one's unbound
           curiosity about these empty zones,
           about their objectless vistas,
           is what art seems to be all about. 

Poetry that brings neutral abyss to presence -- the great unanswerable question behind and allowing phenomena -- has an indelible aura of the artistic about it.  

Reading a poem that's not an implicit question toward the metaphysical ("curiosity about these empty zones") is like reading a bucket of rusty nails being shaken -- it grates on sensitive nerves. Even love poems can injure the reader's mind, when those love poems are unaware of "objectless vistas" as the backdrop for Eros.

In the depths of language, where artistic poets ponder and write, it's almost as if language is quizzing itself -- the status of its nouns, the time of its verbs, the drama of its syntax -- in order that an opening onto universal context might occur, zoneness per se. 

Some people who write poems declare stuff. But rhetoric evaporates poetic ectoplasm, leaving stanzas ghostless and brittle. Art doesn't like it when that happens. Art likes it when zones appear supple with time and ghosts, emptied out of neurosis and opinion. A painting by Yves Tanguy might clarify what I'm talking about. Tanguy isn't declaring or confessing in paint; he's making nothing happen

I Await You (1934)

Back to poetry.

In Brodsky's diptych "Venetian Stanzas," we find the poet moving through the difficult questions of a waterlogged and watermarked city.  

When I try to read these two poems with a focused attention, I get lost in Brodsky's figures of speech. I can't quite get or visualize what he's saying in particular. But when I read them in a half-focused state, letting the stanzas wash over me, I get a sense of them in general.

Behind and within Venice's material presence lurks a hollowness -- a volume of time haunting stone, fabric, people, everyday objects, and water. These stanzas pry open a melancholy space through which the poet ambles physically and spiritually. Into zones of decadent substance grieving the inscrutable weight of the word "is." A masquerade of exhausted history. Our poet is a medium translating the city's perplexed old moods into shapes of human irony. Structure as gesture of always facade, perception as zone of never knowing.

At night -- walls, windows, and the intrigue of rooms. In morning -- shadows just so beneath harbor sunlight and bird wing, the recoil of sentient flesh from the moisture of too much immanence. Venice and the poet both wearily cling to paradoxes of land and water, time and space, substance and being. Those paradoxes form into the empty zone of presence and a possibility of written art.

Eventually, the poet questions his own physical and metaphysical situation as such, honing in on its status of extraneity:

          I am writing these lines sitting outdoors, in winter,
          on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves, a little drunk;
          the lips move slowly enough to hinder
          the vowels of the mother tongue,
          and the coffee grows cold. And the blinding lagoon is lapping
          at the shore as the dim human pupil's bright penalty
          for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy
          here without me.  

In Wallace Stevens's poem "The Idea of Order at Key West," we find the poet under a shore singer's spell of evocation, bringing to thought the "veritable ocean." The sea is a vast phenomenon of symbolic energies:

          The meaningless plungings of water and the wind, 
          Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped 
          On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres 
          Of sky and sea.  

But something else has washed into and fused with consciousness -- that song toward a vaster empty zone beyond. A vocalise of mysterious beauty. And from this comes awareness that the profoundest role of poet is to sound the uncanny question:   

                                      It was her voice that made 
          The sky acutest at its vanishing. 
          She measured to the hour its solitude. 
          She was the single artificer of the world 
          In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, 
          Whatever self it had, became the self 
          That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, 
          As we beheld her striding there alone, 
          Knew that there never was a world for her 
          Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

*    *    *

City and Sea as analogs to open abyss, empty zones filled with enigma and latent with death. 


  1. In morning -- shadows just so beneath harbor sunlight and bird wing, the recoil of sentient flesh from the moisture of too much immanence.

  2. Watching a documentary of Brodsky in Venice, in a cafe, wandering along the street with a camera crew--what he was saying was interesting, but not as satisfying as if it had been spoken with a different voice, by a different person. His Brodsky-ness was what was most relevant. And those few images that most stood out from his conversation--

    What you have written here haunts the page. Here-sketched out, a view of the open sea and sky, or city-as-sea. Another part of the equation might be movement. Without a stirring, an agitation or perhaps the possibility of flow, development, of swirling around, returning, leaving, or remaining, a poem might seem to stagnate.

  3. there never was a world for her
    Except the one she sang and, singing, made.........

    Your post hints at so much of the intangible. Wonder, heavy with its own impossible grief, breaks open--

    Musing--about the poet in Iran who was executed, how his inner worlds colored the lives of his family, friends, and those far beyond him--

    A post I found on Tanguy:

  4. Wonderful post; wonderful comments! I'm not certain about the poem's making nothing happen. Surely a good poem makes something happen inside a reader. Not an action, per se, maybe an aha moment, a realization, something. Not nothing. I guess that sounds simplistic. I think there is room in the world for political poetry. Sadly, I feel that poetry can be put to good "use." If it can't be, even if it's the former (in the reader), I would feel so guilty spending time on it within a world of suffering. It would be too guilty a pleasure. A good poem makes beauty happen, i.e., come to pass, and that is a something that is of value, in my opinion.

  5. The Selves Consider the Sea                                   

     There is a singing that goes out to the sea
     and comes in from the sea
     is with the sea and is me.
     Outside and in, this hymn
     is real as any music
     and yet is an imagining.
     But my ears are all shell and thus                               
     I'll not sail.

    Considers one self.

     The other sighs.

     It feels like the future seems,
     manifest, a to-be, a must,
     a hammock of salt-desire
     swaying, a praying, even
     knowing the possible stranding,
     the glib glide of sand.

    It knows – in truth –  both know                                            
    the chill calling. And still.                                          

    They who heard the sumptuous hum
    dream deep the broad blood of sea,
    the searing gleaming roiling gonging
    green-gray God of skeleton-key.