Don Paterson on Poetics

Poetry in review

Stephen Yenser
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Don Paterson’s new prose work is learned, intensely reflective, shot through with illuminating perceptions–and sometimes baffling and sometimes maddening. To be all of these, as well as crotchety and cavalier, it has to be at least substantial, and in fact it is imposing, even daunting, in its 698 pages (before the bibliography). Concerned with fundamentals yet original and recherché, sweeping in its proclamations yet detailed down to the conceptual curlicue, it recalls tomes as different from it and each other as, say, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill, and Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If it were architecture The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre would be a folly, a fabrique. It is an eccentric monument, a rogue product of vision, compulsion, and superabundant energy.

Oddly, it is written by an excellent poet who as a poet prefers economy and precision to elaboration and opalescence. His poems embody a version of a late, high plain style more at home today in a British than an American literary context. To an American, he sometimes recalls Frost, and Yvor Winters and his cohort, but he has a flair for the aleatory, and while Frost himself likes to undermine and enigmatize his forthrightness, Paterson often features that predilection. Younger American poets who venerate Howard Nemerov and Donald Justice will respond to his verse, which is prosodically polished, shrewd, and rarely predictable. Straight up with a twist.

For an instance of Paterson’s brachylogy, take this brief but freighted lyric from his collection Landing Light, winner of both the Whitbread Poetry Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2003. It opens with a glance at Hadrian’s “Animula” and reminds us fleetingly of Catullus 85 (with its own paradox fixed in the word “excrucior”) but flies free of both:

Sliding on Loch Ogil
Remember, brother soul, that day spent cleaving
nothing from nothing, like a thrown knife–
then there was no arriving and no leaving,
just a dream of the disintricated life–
crucified and free, the still man moving,
the balancing his work, the wind his wife.

“Disintricated”: at the heart of this deftly tied knot, it is the exact word, undercut immediately by “crucified,” and then by the whole of the last two lines, with their counterweights, themselves re-inscribed in the woven rhymes and their resonance, starting with the perfectly double-edged “cleaving.” One could derive from this laudably laden poem–one of a number that could represent his best–the major desiderata that emerge in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre.

The reader interested in convening Paterson’s poems and theory might push off from his remarks in part 1, titled “Lyric,” on contranyms, or what he knows as “auto-antonyms such as ‘cleave,’” whose contrary meanings’ coincidence with their phonological identity “will inevitably leave, in the mouth of the English speaker, the strange aftertaste of paradox.” As it happens, Paterson is one of several poets in the past couple of decades to have opened up this compact word. Unlike many of its cousins–“pall,” for instance, and “fast”–“cleave” has contrary senses (“to hold” and “to cut”) that come from separate etyms. It is possible, however, that all words began as “enantiosemes” (to borrow Roland Barthes’s coinage) that harbored their antitheses at the outset and depended on context to determine their nonce meanings. The groundbreaking study, less known than it might be despite Freud’s review of it, is Karl Abel’s 1884 pamphlet on “the antithetical sense of primal words,” Über den Gegensinn der Urworte. Paterson’s countryman, the Scots philosopher Alexander Bain, stated a related thesis in Logic, Inductive and Deductive (1887): “The essential relativity of all knowledge, thought, or consciousness cannot but show itself in language… . Either every name must have a double meaning, or else for every meaning there must be two names.” Though Paterson does not mention this line of thought, it would seem to comport with his premise in The Poem that “language is a poetic system” in which “connotative speech is far more effective than denotative speech in expressing the complex relations that unify poetry’s often disparate and contradictory materials.”

But then again, it might not, since he adds that “it’s in the imaginative connection of apparently contrary, unrelated or incompatible thematic elements that poetry often finds its ‘epiphanies’” (emphasis mine). It can be difficult to get hold of, let alone anticipate or supplement, the slippery and digressive arguments in Paterson’s “treatise,” as he calls it. True, his subtitle adumbrates an encouragingly firm tripartite structure. Three is the first stable number and a standard basis for divisions small and large. As Donald Sutherland observes with élan in On, Romanticism, 1 stands and falls by itself, 2 “faces one with a single split and may feel like a misfortune,” while 4 “has no sustaining center.” On the other hand, “3 is to some sacred, to others phallic, anyhow lucky,” and Caesar, Dante, and Hegel, a respectable trio, all divided by 3. Style itself, Sutherland assures us, is of three kinds: “Classic, Romantic, Baroque. No more. Any other style is not another but a species, fraction, variant, hybrid, or satellite of these.”

Trinitude does not of course guarantee stability or symmetry. The nuclear family still seems firm enough, but its imitation in the Roman Catholic trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is lopsided and can even seem a parodic distortion. To take a poetic example at hand, Wallace Stevens’s three sections in his grand sequence Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (“It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure”) are so syntactically athwart that they appear arbitrary. For its part, Paterson’s division soon turns out to be provisional and porous. His three “essays” are interdependent–though part 1, “Lyric” and part 3, “Metre” could be edited to stand alone–and the subdivisions defy logical sequence and hierarchical arrangement. One reason must be that, as he informs us in his preface, he means to address several “constituencies … simultaneously.” At first these constituencies seem to be four–poets, editors, scholars, and a community of readers–but in a slippage we get used to they are narrowed soon to the first three. (Aha!) As he cautions us early in part 2, “Sign: The Domain of the Poem,” the most obscure, his exposition will be unruly and interrupted, so we cannot plead ignorance, and, indeed, before long argument and analysis will be foreshadowed, recapitulated, approximated, contravened, and surrendered, only to be resumed unexpectedly and parsed anew. Paterson does not advance theses so much as take up topics–many that perforce escape mention here–and his three essays are really clusters of mini-essays (part 3 alone has forty-four sections), which give the impression that they agglutinated here and there over the course of long composition.

To confound the complexity, Paterson, unlike most poets, fancies theoretical constructs and relishes taxonomy, and because his poet’s instincts for the ludic and the ambivalent come into play, he adopts, adapts, and invents designations, treating them rather as though they were, well, words. He deplores traditional rhetoric, which is “not really a proper discipline” but rather “a rag-bag of poorly defined, barely agreed, contradictory, and often overlapping concepts,” but his nomenclature is liable to the same objections. Many key terms receive several definitions, and The Poem includes in endnote 16 four pages of the very terms denigrated for “caricaturing” style because they are “still darned pretty” and “handy.” His admission of this contradiction, disarming though it might be, can only testify to his insouciance. One is tempted in such moments to lament his vacation from his vocation. The force everywhere present in his poems but perforce missing from his treatise is of course meter, which he so rightly understands as poetry’s means of “pressurization.” Yet there are other means of promoting concentration, and Paterson, whose polymorphic talents have led him into music as well as poetry and cognitive science, is also an editor.

Its multiple subdivisions notwithstanding, The Poem can recall Jackson Pollock’s painterly entanglements. A better spatial analogue might be a mandala, the image Paterson himself invokes, but the mandala has a center, whereas The Poem could make a wry reader conjure the mystic’s definition of God as a circle with a center everywhere and a circumference nowhere (which is perhaps the content of “mandala” rather than its form). In fact, while elements in the three major divisions scamander into one another, the book itself is immarginate, so theology does come up–to be dismissed summarily as a “mysterian cult.”

The book as a whole, then, is “baroque,” but its initial essay, “Lyric: The Sound of the Poem,” comprises a constellation of nearly “classical” texts and should be a heuristic assignment in any serious poetry workshop. It reveals a poet devoted to and percipient about his craft, and therefore skeptical about his achievement. Paterson’s attestations of humility can seem pro forma, but anyone will feel he knows–or know he feels–whereof he speaks in this admission: “Poets are therefore, paradoxically, experts in the failure of language… . Their medium is failure.” Poets thus epitomize the plight of humanity, and Paterson makes explicit the pertinent link between the poet and the species that Eliot frames memorably in Four Quartets, notably in part V of East Coker. The fall into language has meant that “words fail us continually, as we search for them beyond the borders of speech, push words to the limit of their meaning, and even drive them beyond it.”

Still, since poets are the “experts” in this failure, any apprentice and indeed any journeyman in the guild would do well to ponder the gists and piths in “Lyric.” Among the more affecting, some vary each other elegantly, such as “The poem is a little machine for remembering itself,” and “The poet is engaged in something closely analogous to trying to remember a poem [that has been] forgotten.” Again, “The white page is also a sign to the reader that poems were won from silence, and “A poetic form is essentially a codified pattern of silence”–which second statement he follows out tellingly: “We have a little silence at the end of the line, a bigger one at the end of a stanza, and a huge one at the end of a poem.”

His section titled “The Phonostheme” is rife with nuggets. The phonostheme is simply “a point of sound-sense coincidence,” but Paterson pushes the relationship of the sonic to the semantic to a striking conclusion. If it is true that “the ‘rightness’ of a word or line is verified as much by its sound as by its meaning,” poets are “never forced to choose one over the other,” because “the two are merely manifest aspects of a same thing. If we get the sound wrong, the sense is also askew.” The reader might reasonably observe that he has forgotten his principle that the poet cannot but fail, that le mot juste (let alone le texte juste) is an ideal only, but his reductive logic makes its practical point vividly. If an anecdote will facilitate his intuition about sound-sense affinity, he does not mind a mild catachresis: “(Once, standing on top of Pen y Fan in the Brecons, I found ice clinging to some green grass stalks that had been blown to immaculate, perfect bird-feathers, the wind and water between them having whistled up a form in a few hours that had taken several million years to evolve.)” He could have made a poem from the experience–“in a few hours”? Well, there is no telling how long it took to ruminate on it and then compose this parenthesis in which the empirical turns into the parabolic before our eyes.

Paterson braves the shaky ground of the notion, advanced by the Heraclitean disciple Cratylus in the eponymous Platonic dialogue, that things have natural names. He will not defend to the death that thesis, which most linguists today would challenge, but he will argue that its foil, “the arbitrariness of the sign,” is a tenet that “poets know to be sheer madness,” regardless of its support by Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky. On “a cline that runs from pure onomatopoeia to arbitrary naming,” he falls or stands somewhere much nearer onomatopoeia: “The sounds by which we represent things cannot, we sense, have been randomly selected.” Without having to take a side in the semiotic debate, all experienced poets will acknowledge Paterson’s instinct that in the best verse the sounds of the words “seem to enact” the referents. Paterson formalizes that instinct as the principle of “iconicity,” and just as “language has poetry wired through it,” poetry can act as “language’s self-correcting function.”

Other sections in “Lyric” pivot on equally bracing allegations. In “Noise,” amplifying his observation that “the poem can be thought of as operating, in its way, like a miniature nervous system,” he fearlessly and paradoxically suggests that “it will one day be entirely possible to write a great poem with a computer.” In “Lyric, Vowel and Consonant” he sets down the undeniable but distressing truth that a good poet or editor “can hold a poem at arm’s length and, without having read a word, know that there’s a 90 per cent chance that it’s bad.” His proof, details of which would require a long paragraph to repeat, involves the “music” of the poem, which is a more material matter than that term might imply.

In the worthy service of elevating the vowel to its proper level in our exegeses, the same section includes a provocative excursion on vowel-less languages. Accounting for the vowel’s devaluation in early graphic systems, he drily reminds us that because “the original purpose of our immortal inscription was the recording of debt and the issuing of receipts,” those systems did not mandate temporality–and then within two hundred words he shows how the same indifference to the temporal coincides tantalizingly with the emphasis in the Egyptian, Hebrew, and classical Arabic holy books on the eternal. It almost makes sense, then–though the way Paterson deals his cards always deserves scrutiny–that the “re-envowelling” of the Torah and the Qur’an accompanied the midrash of the Kabbalists and the hermeneutics of the Sufis, who, rather like our poets, were seeking the exact Word of the Divine. “Thy word is all, if we could spell” (George Herbert).

“Rhyme” also deserves to be promulgated among MFA programs. The received wisdom in some quarters is that rhyme in English, a notoriously rhyme-poor language, distorts syntax and reroutes meaning. But that canard flies in the face, as canards will, of the incitive value of resistance. To put it one way: “The difficulty of finding a natural rhyme guarantees that it will take time–and in that enforced delay, we often find what it is we think, and discover what we didn’t know. (The temptation to merely write down what you do know is perhaps the greatest danger in writing free verse.)” Rerouting is the point. To put it another way: “To push an idea through a rhyme-pattern feels like straining fruit through muslin, and it often emerges refined, sharpened and about 50 per cent lighter.” And a third: “The most successful rhymes are generally those which incarnate the same/different motif, and formally enhance the vague sense of paradox we feel on encountering semantically opposed words or different parts of speech joined by similar sounds, this creates a kind of ‘phonosemantic’ chiasmus.” But this paragraph is beginning to sound like a compliant culling of captivating gnomes. Suffice it to say that they radiate from Paterson’s fertile axiom: “The poet is committed to a process, not an operation.” In his other words: “Write the poem you’re writing, not the one you want to write.” That is a command that deserves inscription above the workshop entrance.

Next to the workshop is the lecture hall. The mode of the second part of The Poem is various but has little in common with that of the first part–never mind the poems–as an excerpt from early in “Sign: The Domain of the Poem” will soon suggest. The burden of “Sign,” which is indebted to cognitive poetics, is that “poetic trope” and “poetic meaning” are interdependent concepts and that “an analysis of trope is broadly consubstantial with the analysis of poetic meaning.” (Paterson does not address directly the relation of trope to its ancient peers scheme and figure.) The subject of the imminent excerpt is “peristasis,” a term that is paramount because, along with metonymy, peristasis is one of Paterson’s two “tropes of relation.”

Or is it? Before long, Paterson reveals that “a metonym is just a peristasis with the subject removed.” (The locution “X is just Y” is a tic in his prose.) In any event, we can distinguish these two from the “tropes of correspondence,” the chief of which is metaphor. (I have been unable to specify the others with confidence.) “Symbol” and “asymbol” ultimately emerge as types of trope on a par with metaphor and metonym (which by then has regained its independence), and Paterson intends this asymmetrical pair of pairs to replace what he chooses to view as the four conventional tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Allegory, sometimes considered a trope in good standing, turns up as a subdivision of “symbol” in a couple of paragraphs (in the section “Concrete, Abstract and Symbol”) that will excite controversy that is extraneous here.

As Paterson says at this, its first mention, peristasis will be “new to most readers.” Amen. My lowbrow but sometimes intuitive spell-check stubbornly insists that I mean “peristalsis” (which leads me to wonder what Paterson would say about the terms’ resemblance in view of his observations about phonosemantics). Peristasis does not appear as a literary term in The Oxford English Dictionary (though it has meanings in architecture and medicine). A scholarly manual that Paterson rightly praises as “splendidly sane and useful,” Richard Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (second edition), grants peristasis a scant definition derived directly from the Greek: “Amplifying by describing attendant circumstances.” That’s it. Now here is Paterson on its essence:

As we’ll see, it’s really a kind of pre-metonymy (cognitively, I think it functions specifically as a potentiated metonym), and shares its deep form. “Peristasis” bears roughly the same relation to “metonym” as “metaphor” does to “enigma” (my word for “riddle”): metonym omits the “subject,” “enigma” the “tenor.” I would also argue that this “additional detail” may be unspoken, i.e., text-absent, and present only as an “active connotation” drawn forth or implied by the context–or what I’ll soon call the “thematic domain”–in which it appears. Similarly, what looks like a simple subject is often a contextually identifiable salience, telling us we have a metonym: for example, “the woman” may indeed be metonymic if the person concerned is being pointed out as the only female member of a gang of male football hooligans; the full sense is really “that woman in the group who is female,” or “the woman one.” Formally, this is arguably identical to pointing out someone as “the spots” in the context of a series of otherwise immaculate mugshots; a peristatic expression of the same detail would be “the spotty one.” Peristasis is a contextually relevant expansion; metonymy is an understood contraction of a peristasis. Their presence in any text is a matter of sensitive interpretation.

The “hooligans” and “mugshots” are a relief from the initial abstruseness, which the epigrammatic penultimate sentence also does what it can to rectify.

It would not help to try to put this sample passage in context, since there is none, in the ordinary sense, because Paterson’s interloping and interlooping argument “is not a linear one–nor could it be.” (A word on the nature of that impossibility would be interesting.) Consequently the reader flits from one passage to another, back and forth, more in “Sign” than in Pale Fire if with less satisfaction. (Par parenthèse, Nabokov’s “word golf”–which would seem an apt subject for Paterson in his discussions of the phonostheme–could serve as a metaphor for some of his metamorphic definitions.) Readers with fond distant memories of Northrop Frye’s naively limpid classification in Anatomy of Criticism will be dismayed, while students familiar with something along the lines of Timothy Bahti’s clear and punctilious entry on “Figure, Scheme, Trope” in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics will be grateful for the assistance.

Some of the questions raised by the sample are answerable, in the fullness of time. For a definitional passage, however, much is indefinite. It simply does not feel as though the author is bearing down on his language. For one thing, the references to elucidations deferred, as in “As we’ll see” and “what I’ll soon call,” which we encounter dozens of times in The Poem, blur our focus, undermine our confidence, and dampen our spirit. For another thing, with the same results, the casual extension in “really a kind of” (another tic) turns abruptly, as though Paterson’s parenthetical trouvaille surprised him, into a specific but opaque term, “potentiated metonym.” (Perhaps something pre-metonymous can also be an enhanced metonymy, but explanation is in order.) At first blush, in view of “I think,” “cognitively” would be pleonastic, if it were not, as it must be (like “Formally” later), an unanchored adverb, so Paterson probably means “it functions cognitively” and so on. But then what does that phrase imply? “Cognitively” as distinct from how?

If it is not itself superfluous, “I think” introduces dubiety at the moment that crisper delineation is the goal. Moreover, the content of the “deep form” of “pre-metonymy” (the punctuation precludes “metonym” itself as the antecedent of “its”) needs elucidation if we are to understand the “kind” of figure peristasis is. This figure is said to bear “roughly the same relation” to “metonym” as “metaphor” bears to “enigma”–but we have no inkling what the alleged near equivalence lacks to qualify as only a rough one, so we cannot judge the significance of the discrepancy.

We might compare Paterson’s treatment of connotation and attribute some twenty pages earlier, where he does address a related discrepancy. He takes these two words to mean “roughly the same thing,” he tells us, “but the nuance is still useful, since an attribute can be thought of as something ‘possessed by’ and intrinsic to a core, where a connotation is generated by its core–i.e., the former has arisen via a process that is more passively definitional, and the latter through one more actively propositional.” But there, even while clarifying the nature of a rough difference, he shifts the burden of distinction to the relative phrases “more passively definitional” and “more actively propositional.” I suspect the demarcation is “a matter of sensitive interpretation.”

Meanwhile, back in peristasis, the nature of enigma is uncertain. Enigma seems “roughly” synonymous with riddle, but if so, why prefer–pointedly–the broader, older, more mysterious lexeme? In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham, hoping to familiarize a learned term, was the first rhetorician to regard riddle as the English equivalent of the Greek enigma, but it is enigma that he provides three versions of. Given the significance and frequent rarefaction of definition here, shouldn’t we know explicitly what the term denotes for Paterson?

The common term tenor has come up a few pages earlier in The Poem, but in another dense, problematic context. Its critical inventor, I. A. Richards, goes unmentioned for another fifteen pages or so, where tenor will be lucidly established (à la its inventor), in contradistinction to vehicle as the “subject” of a metaphor (rather than a metonym, a standard distinction since it was made by Roman Jakobson, elsewhere and on this topic an authority for Paterson–albeit one with whom he disagrees). What, then, retracing our steps, is the implication for subject in this briary passage, where it is parallel to but distinct from tenor? The question persists, since subject recurs–on the heels of a linkage of two claims by the dubiously operative similarly. Regardless of our “subject,” what are the factors in this similitude? At this point the analysis threatens to become ephemeral, and when in the sentence following the one beginning “Similarly,” Paterson tells us that “this [sic] is arguably identical to” etc., it evaporates. One wonders how arguably functions, and what the counterargument is, and, most important, what this refers to. As so often in the book, Paterson uses the unattached demonstrative to indicate a long, complex sentence that includes obscure elements. The impression is of an elaborate shell game in a fog.

I dwell on this patch of prose because it is representative, especially in “Sign,” which continues to make heavy weather of determined comprehension. As the mental vessel lurches forward, vertigo comes and goes. Paterson, hélas and hooray, cannot be unsympathetic to the predicament. It is a rum game to quote the writer against himself, but he has told us early in The Poem that his work as an editor of manuscripts of poems consists chiefly of “asking poets to clarify their meaning.” While “difficulty” is not a defect per se, the poet’s difficulty “needs to be vigilantly mitigated, not cheerfully encouraged.” As for our theorist, in part 2 he admits that he can himself, when it is convenient, “gloss cheerfully over a central controversy in the philosophy of language,” and later he breezily confesses that he has “breezily” avoided a particular issue.

“Breezily,” “cheerfully.” Byron’s admonition springs to mind: easy writing makes damned hard reading. In Paterson’s book, however, the writing is not strictly “easy” so much as it is careless of the reader: self-absorbed, ardent, impetuous, driven by momentum and exuberant association. “God’s mill grinds slow but sure,” Herbert reminded us once and for all (in a judicious succession of stresses that Paterson could have had much to say about in part 3), but the enthusiastic writer’s can be fast and rough. The one reliable remedy, as it is (according to some) the one reliable pleasure, is revision–bearing down, which is such a virtue in Paterson’s verse.

He insists that asides, divagations, and other evidence of the act of composition in the finished–no, the abandoned–work are integral to its authenticity and effect. He reserves a place in his select rhetoric for metanoia, as well he should, since for him “poetry is a self-correcting habit of language.” In Puttenham, metanoia is “the Penitent,” or the figure of explicit change of mind, a pentimento whose original is allowed to stand (as in this paragraph’s first sentence). In classical rhetoric, it occurs in proximate phrases, but it might be that Paterson considers all parts of his book proximate. Here is how The Poem opens: “Our dominance as a species can largely be blamed on our superior future-predicting capability. This capability is both derived from and reflected in the sophistication and length of our memories. Language puts us at a terrifically unfair advantage in terms of both strategising and forward planning, as it allows us to discuss things in their absence.” This opening is so sonorous and seemingly incontrovertible that it is still in our heads at the beginning of part 2, one hundred pages later, where we learn that language (dead or invisible metaphors, to be specific) also encourages us to “recreationally destroy our own home,” the planet earth. “Take ‘the future is ahead of us’; this makes us think the future is something we can see and anticipate, and has led to astonishing hubris and misplaced self-confidence. Yet the Greeks saw the future as behind them and the past ahead of them, remaining sensibly fearful of that which they could not know. This seems by far the more sane configuration–and certainly the more appropriately humble.” One can hardly disagree with that statement either.

The point is not that both claims cannot be true but rather that their inclusion between the same covers produces complications that merit working through instead of being reduced to edifying edicts. Composition involves moment-to-moment commitment that often precludes self-awareness, and the restorative, again, is revision, which can still honor Robert Lowell’s decree, which Paterson quotes approvingly: “Poetry is not the record of an event: it is an event.” (He does not consider Lowell’s monumentally relentless demonstration of this declaration in History.) In his own words at the end of “Lyric,” another variation on a favorite theme, good poems “show the writer in the process of making their discovery.”

That estimable assessment, with its flagrantly justifiable failure to make the possessive “their” agree with the antecedent noun, brings us to other, minor issues. Skipping over Paterson’s omission of the Oxford comma, whose disambiguating powers are not outdated, we find his commitment to a recently devised solution to the fairly recently discovered problem of the cultural prejudice conveyed by the gendered pronoun. Like an increasing number of bias-sensitive writers, Paterson normally resorts to the ungendered third person plural “they/them” where the conventional patriarchal antecedent would formally have demanded “he/him” or (latterly) an alternation of “he/him” and “she/her.” (He can fall prey to other sexist locutions, however: “‘No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.’”) The result can be ungainly obfuscation, as in this warning: “Heaven help the poet if the reader invests their precious time in this way”–i.e., in trying “to find more significance than” the poem’s “mere prose sense offers”–because “the poem then fails to reward them.” His focus in this part of “Lyric” is the partnership of the poet and the reader, wherein the former “invites the reader to quietly attend to the poem in such a way as to release more of its resonant potential,” so the plural here can designate either the poet or the reader. It is possible that Paterson wittily intends the ambivalence attendant on correcting the old-fashioned custom to reinforce his claim about the poetic contract, but I think that possibility is ingenious–an attempt, as he says of readers who “project” too much, “to find more significance” than is warranted. (Other examples of unfortunate grammatical disagreement are legion.)

The preceding paragraph–which is not an objection to rectifying the quandary we Anglophones find ourselves in owing to the lack of a counterpart to the French on–makes a small point. But as Paterson puts it early in the “Lyric” section, “a small thing that stands for a larger thing” can be crucial. He is addressing synecdoche, so important to our idea of the rich poem that it is “our master trope.” Yet that trope, he soon stipulates, with characteristic amendment and cunctation, is “perhaps just as much ‘symbol,’ as I’ll later argue.” “Later,” however, in “Sign,” he disconcertingly degrades synecdoche to “merely a subset of metonymy.”

In the larger matter of the contractual relation between the poet’s contribution and the reader’s, Paterson is at once vigorous and temporizing. On the one hand, in the vein associated with Eliot’s championing of the metaphysical poets, and notwithstanding his indictments of modernism, he advocates the “difficulty” of good poetry, “which generally leaves the reader with far more work to do than they would when faced with a piece of prose.” (Incidentally, why not avoid that grammatical gaucherie and save a word or two with, say, “leaves the reader with far more work to do than when faced with a piece of prose”? A new custom need not be flaunted to be established.) Our poets “seem to have entered an age,” he muses, when the resurgent standard is that of the Celtic bards, to whom, in Kuno Meyer’s phrase, “the half-said thing … is dearest.”

On the other hand, Paterson scorns readings (or over-readings) of poems that project “sophistications far in excess than [sic] those actually introjected.” But whence, O whence that “actually”? Even if Paterson were the introjecting poet in question, he should recognize the puzzle inevitably presented by the poet’s positing of “actual” introjection, with its roots–conscious, subconscious, and adventitious or even unrecognized at first but welcome. The source of the scolding of “sophistications” is an entertainingly meandering footnote. (His footnotes are usually rewardingly long, and when very long they are broken off to become endnotes, eighteen of which are appended to the book. The reader “is free to ignore” these endnotes, we learn in the preface–with the caveat that “the material they contain is as important or unimportant as anything else in the text.”) This footnote, presumably as least as important or unimportant as anything in the endnotes, has begun by averring that “anyone” who would take William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” as a note left for his wife “on a kitchen table” would be “missing a fair bit.” The hapless “anyone,” that is, would be under-reading. (The contrarian in me, provoked by Paterson’s disdain for certain interpreters, rises to remark that “the kitchen table” is Paterson’s own “projection.” Williams could just as easily have stuck his note to what the poem refers to as “the icebox.”)

But then Paterson also assures us that some of “the most artful poems have the habit of disguising themselves as far simpler statements than they really are.” For anyone faced with such subterfuge, over-reading must be in order. So it is curious that he peremptorily instructs us that “there’s less than meets the eye” in Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and scoffs at “those circles which regard [either poem] as a holy text” and over-read it. That these poems became “holy text” because of quasi-midrashic commentary over the past century is a fact he ignores.

In the course of his strenuous waffling between over-reading and under-reading and his derision of both, Paterson frames plainly the proposition that he could have kept his focus on, to wit: “Poetic information has to generate the context by which it is then understood,” and consequently there can be an “agonizingly fine balance between context [provided by the poet] and content [inferred by the reader].” His rejection of New Criticism stems chiefly from what he takes to be its implicit postulation of the true or at least correct, plausible, or satisfactory interpretation of any given poem, no matter its difficulty. For him, the intentional fallacy, on the poet’s side, and the affective fallacy, on the reader’s part, both militate against the axioms that, first, “No human can ever know what anything means,” and, second, “The truest value of ‘poetic meaning’ accrues within the dynamic flux of our reading and re-reading.”

His rock-bottom belief, however, is that what the poet needs and works toward first is the engagement of the reader’s feelings. To his credit, he does not invariably shy from the recognition that for the individual reader the moving and revelatory poem must yield “a single interpretation–which may be complex, broad, richly ambiguous, and capable of undergoing radical change.” That last phrase is the escape clause. Rather than contradicting his attack on the “fallacies” (which to some readers will neither disqualify nor justify New Criticism anyway), it lets him acknowledge a fruitful dialectical crisis. Perhaps he means in the whole of his tergiversation to model for the reader the agonistic “process” that goes into writing such hermeneutic work. If so, it is regrettable that what often comes across instead is meanness of spirit. That he has early-warned us of such acerbity cannot set right either the needless assaults on individual postmodernist critics or the zealous iconoclasm directed everywhere at the New Criticism, which has demonstrably contributed so much to his thinking.

Paterson also complains that “compared to the subjects of sound-patterning and trope [subjects respectively in “Lyric” and “Sign”], meter has taken up a disproportionately large amount of the theoretical discussion” and has generated “insight after barren insight, each one full of more nuance and detail than the last.” This complaint manifests again the ready animus that shows up nakedly in asides like this one: “I have occasionally discovered to my own cost” the shortcomings of readings by “a certain breed of older scholar who continues to regard the poet as a bewildered naif through which the work is channeled.” These scholars “remind one of a team of scientists gathered in bewilderment round a spade, wisely concluding that it is a giant teaspoon.”

The grousing–which comes, after all, from a poet who has been widely honored–also strikes me in passing as further evidence of absence of revision. “Lyric” extends for 100 pages, “Sign” for 275, and “Metre” for 323–and Paterson’s “nuance and detail” in “Metre” are themselves extraordinarily copious. It is mildly ironic that exactly the subtlety of Paterson’s prosodic analysis distinguishes it. As he admits, part 3 is highly technical and might be the least engaging to readers more likely to identify the molossus, the mora, and the amphibrach as sea critters than as metrical terms. For those readers whose cup of tea prosody is, however, “Metre” can be stimulating if not always consequential.

The heart of part 3 is his argument that “there are only two kinds of metrical line in English.” They are “the low and the high, the ‘folk’ and the literate, the oral and the written, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the anonymous and the authored.” While the Dionysian and the Apollonian are too complexly related to belong in this list of contraries, the important difference is that one line is akin to the Anglo-Saxon four-beat alliterative line, and the other is “a deliberate complication” of that line. According to Paterson, the former has many avatars, a few of which are ballad meter, “where the second line has a ghost [foot] for breathing in a song”; the Burns stanza; the double dactyl; and the fourteener. One question that arises is whether the energy expended in creating and apprehending the explanation of the relationships among the varieties of the first line, all derived, like the second line, from an “ur-form”–a “4-strong template, a series of stresses separated by weak placeholders”–is worth it. The answer depends on whether the reader is at the moment a prosodic historian or a poet.

Even most so-called mainstream or traditional poets will find some of Paterson’s paradigms attenuated. Very few poets I know will react warmly to his gloss on a conventional scansion of a prototypical iambic pentameter line (the “high” or “literate” line, which he calls “i.p.” because he does not like the history of the standard term):

Any poet who has worked extensively in the line will tell you there’s a great deal more going on. For example: the i.p. line can also be heard as a triple dimetronic, with its end catalectically shorn, like the ballad line with its silent final beat. However, the fact that it can often be felt as heavily in three as five–[scansion of 6-line quotation as example follows here]–is really just a product of alternate stress within the 5-metron sequence. Although one might say i.p. has a ghost metron in the sixth position (this is highly moot, for reasons we will explore), to describe the line as a “permanently catalectic hexameter” is definitely missing the point. One might sensibly choose to sing this dimetronic line as a slow ¾; another obvious solution for composers attempting to set i.p. would be to treat it as a very slow waltz-time ballad.

Prosodists who will not be “missing the point” will be the best audience for the longest part of The Poem, especially later subdivisions, but the motivating convictions will resonate with anyone. These convictions include Paterson’s belief that poetry abets “a high degree of connection” between the phoneme and the sign in language itself, an “integration and a consequent interchangeability of form and content” such that “the melodies of surface-sense are underpinned by complex and shifting harmonies of semantic resonance.” Partly because meter puts torque on already lexically destabilized words, “No other human discourse … revises the connection between a word and its meaning quite like a poem.” In other words, “Ideally, poetry is radical thought expressed in appropriately radical language,” and it speaks that language in large part because the “metrical frame” establishes a “musical structure … that simultaneously licenses, contains, mitigates and encourages poetry’s excesses.”

Paterson has no partisan political ax to sharpen, though he has little tolerance for hierarchy, but at this juncture his thought makes a near rhyme with Herbert Marcuse’s memorable meditation (in his preface to the second edition of Reason and Revolution) on Hegel’s dialectic and Mallarmé’s aesthetics. (A full rhyme would demand a few pages about Paterson’s revisionary commentaries on “thing” and “meaning.”) Poetry, Marcuse concludes, can “break the power of facts over the word,” and “speak a language which is not the language of those who establish, enforce, and benefit from the facts.” Meter, on Paterson’s astute account, facilitates and enforces poetry’s essentially subversive extravagance.

Paterson’s other generative convictions involve the relevance of the subjective and the performative aspects of meter to its interpretation. The poem is through and through a human product from which emotion is extricable only to the detriment of the critic, not to mention the poet–a truism we might think as plain as the proverbial nose to anyone who takes the idea of the affective fallacy with a grain of salt. But we need only dip into prosodic manuals or visit undergraduate introductions to poetry to understand how often it is ignored. In “Metre,” as throughout the book, Paterson teases its ramifications into revelations.

He interrogates the expansive notion of the prose poem with circumspection. Unless I misinterpret his tone, he has a prohibitive doubt about the viability of the genre, though he wants to believe that in France, where our version of it was invented, it has plausibility, because “the French prose poem ‘connotes’ the poetic by different means” from those of the English prose poem. He does not (and I think cannot) satisfactorily explain those means. He acknowledges at the outset that the prose poem “rejects one of the strongest core attributes of the conceptual domain of ‘poem,’ which is that it be written in lines.” But even here he begins to dilute his argument by declaring the presence of “the line” only “one of the strongest” markers of the poem, and he continues to devalue it by glossing it as a “conventional typographic advertisement of … poem-status or poetic nature.”

What if the line were not among the markers of the poem but instead the sole marker necessary? Other means by which a poem distinguishes itself from prose, Paterson allows, are “diction,” “scheme,” and “intention.” Yet he has a few sentences previously pointed out that the British Decadents, in search of a way for the prose poem “to sell itself as a poem … often found themselves reaching for an overly poeticized diction” that obviously could not seal the business deal. He does not articulate the degree of poeticized diction that would qualify the prose poem as a poem because that is impossible to do. (Which passages in Ulysses or in Nightwood, both of which abound in poeticized diction of all stripes, and even incorporate rhyme and metrical feet, could we stipulate are poetry?) For a similar reason he neglects to enlighten us as to the “scheme” or “intention” that would turn vinous prose into sanguine poetry. Finally recognizing his bind, he hopes that “perhaps all the prose poem requires is to be found in a book called Poems.

Well, yes. And why not? A level-headed reader would never bridle at Paterson’s inclusion of the set piece quoted earlier on the icy bird-wings in a book of verse. “The alternative,” he nonetheless insists, “is a circular and pointless discussion about what constitutes ‘poeticity.’” Worrying the problem further in spite of himself, he proposes that if we “call a prose poem ‘unlineated poetry’ … the problem virtually disappears.” (The limitless virtues of virtually!) In fact, “unlineated poetry” is no less oxymoronic than “prose poetry” if the sine qua non of poetry is–as I believe it is–the line. The true alternative to nattering about “poeticity,” a specious term, is to make a distinction between poetry and prose–to draw the bright line.

The related matter of “free verse” gets its own, modest section. Paterson argues that “there is a good deal to say about this subject” but that (for some reason unclear to me) “most of it is beyond the scope” of his doorstop of a book. As elsewhere, his opposition to free verse is that it offers little “resistance” to “the dull or stupid thing” the poet would ordinarily set down. He makes the sensible if impractical suggestion that, because of its honorific connotations, we free ourselves of the word free and understand that our topic is “unrhymed verse which demonstrates no adherence to metrical pattern.” I guess we could indeed still call it verse, since like trope that word means “turn,” and turn is what line breaks make the words do, but that option goes against the grain, since the concepts of verse and measure are so bound up. Nevertheless, Paterson has excellent sections on “line length” and “line-break and enjambment.”

The issue of the existence in English verse of “the true spondee” receives welcome exposure. In a passage the whole of which demonstrates hair-splitting by an expert in trichoschisis, Paterson succinctly summarizes the debate. While “many theorists feel [the spondee] cannot exist (on the principle that if two strong stresses occur together, one must weaken to preserve alternate stress),” others think that “if a spondee merely realizes part of an abstract metrical frame which contains successive strong-stress positions, then it ‘exists.’” The opposing theorists’ points of departure differ, so one would have to prove invalid for the other set to prevail, and the proof is not available. Paterson has the final amiably equivocal and self-exemplifying words: “If two strong positions occur successively as a part of an overdetermined abstract frame–designate that part of the template a ‘spondee,’ by all means; just understand that this points to something which does not exist. But overdetermined templates can encourage the spondee, and spoken words can then realise it. Damn right.” (The last emphasis, which implies the performative dimension of verse that Paterson rightly stresses, is mine.)

His certitude that “syllabic rhythm” is a spurious notion can only be a salutary nullification for those teaching or studying composition, and so too with his rejection of both the myth of the iambic as the “natural rhythm” of the English language and of the fabled source of the iamb in the human heartbeat. Welcome as well is his concurrence with T. V. F. Brogan’s practical principle of binary stress: “Scansions which take account of more levels of metrical degree than two, or intonation, or the timing of syllables are all guilty of overspecification.” Like most of his positions, however, his approval of Brogan’s principle gives way in time under the weight of exceptions necessitated by other schemata. In “The Problem of Notation” he asserts that “individual stresses can be given a numerical value,” and in search of “the most sensible way to notate” two stanzas (eight lines) of Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” he finds “32 s [strong] stresses, all of which would be differentiated in value.” This is one of a host of instances in which he seems to me to try to “quantify the unquantifiable,” the thankless practice he tasks other critics for. (Compare also the section titled “Nuclear Stress in the AS Matrix.”)

When Paterson deals with delicate interactions in particular contexts, he is always instructive. His response to exegeses of the last lines of Marvell’s “The Garden” in the section titled “Projection Errors” is one of many such. As he says, these lines have become a “prosodic chestnut,” but for the patient reader his marginalia can pull them out of the fire. It is the frequency of passages like these, along with his gift for incisive precepts that a friend has in mind when he praises The Poem as a kind of I Ching. I am afraid that it makes me think for a moment now and then of The Key to All Mythologies in Middlemarch. But that rude allusion cannot be sustained.

Another far-fetched comparison might be with Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, the folk art masterwork built in south Los Angeles over the course of about thirty years by an Italian immigrant tile setter. Constructed largely of rebar bent into gradually tightening spirals up to one hundred feet high and coated with concrete–in which Rodia left impressions of his tools and set bits of tile left over from his work, glass shards, fragments of flatware, seashells, and diverse objets trouvés, fossils of our era–they prompt associations ranging from the spires of Gothic cathedrals to the masts of Columbus’s flagship. On a relict plot alongside the railroad tracks, there are, we might note, three major structures. Like other follies, often conceived by eccentric visionaries (though rarely executed by a single, unfunded bricoleur), the Watts Towers, “baroque,” grandiose, and painstakingly detailed, are sui generis, energizing, and inspiring.

Stephen Yenser is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and the author or The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. With Langdon Hammer, he is the co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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