Saturday, February 28, 2015

`Continuity of Parts'

A self-critical friend passes along a poem by a well-known poet that he finds “as opaque as a brick wall,” and wonders if I can turn opacity into transparence. My friend is a smart, well-read fellow, and it’s probably unnecessary to note that the poem in question is written in one of two dominant contemporary modes of verse: in this case, pretentious gibberish, with many lacunae and no continuity, rather than Dick-and-Jane sincerity. It’s less a poem (arguably, it’s not a poem at all) than a poetic gesture, intended by its author as a sign of club membership, like a secret handshake among poets. The implication is, if you don’t get it, you don’t belong. The stuff is easy to write, attested to by the writer’s bloated corpus, and impossible to read. Dr. Johnson had the final word on this species of fraud: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” On this date, Feb. 28, in 1790, William Cowper writes to his cousin, John Johnson, an aspiring poet: 

“Only remember, that in writing, perspicuity is always more than half the battle: the want of it is the ruin of more than half the poetry that is published. A meaning that does not stare you in the face is as bad as no meaning, because nobody will take the pains to poke for it.” 

Except graduate students. Perspicuity is a fine word and a fine quality in writing. As Sir Thomas Browne puts it in “Of Crystal” in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72): “Continuity of parts is the cause of perspicuity.” That leaves out Emerson and most of his descendants.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Is this perspicuous then?

A Poem of Consequence

‘And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.’


It seems now eloquence is quarantined.
Beyond the cordon sanitaire still go
those deemed demoticly correct. Convened,
they murmur democratically. They know

the proper hue of the articulate
is shame, embarrassment, apology,
and timid poets embed their rhymes and tut
for fear that readers spot the prosody.

An excess of address is not allowed
when one fits words to catch fine-grained creation.
"Olympian pronouncements!" is avowed,
and odious arrogance, the accusation.

For faith is lost in words and pen that used
to move the fulcrum world. Our chant and song
and incantation, magic’s source, imbues
few ears and now no more delights among

the waiting crowd. We avidly disown
what separates us from the beasts that whine
and click. Discarding dignity, dethroned
to please a scientist who discounts our kind.

The words and language that defined the world,
the human voice that gave terrain its sense,
are cheaply sold by us, renounced and hurled
away so quick for little recompense.


A dripping window; consciousness emerges,
a sudden miracle, though everyday.
Within the house, from dark, much more resurges:
free will, the moral sense, the power to say

I am and who I am. Identity
and choice make our nobility, our glory
it’s best to celebrate; alacrity
to abdicate, instead, the usual story.

Accountability’s esteem, thus set
aside, is what we gain from such too free
consent to scorn the human blessing. Yet,
what’s worse, it’s styled as our humility.

It seems ontic weight is badly borne,
and there are challenges from which we hide.
“Conflicted” is the term for being torn,
we vacillate, entre life and suicide.

To damp the existential angst and lift
depression's scourge, as if conviction words could
resolve conundrums and curtail the drift,
we jut our chins, insist we're "going forward".

The skeptics and the boffins rush to prove
our insignificance. They waste their wit’s art
dissolving personhood, and they approve
reducing this great actor to a bit part.

Eroding people must be fun in white
laboratories. What starts as theory, though,
may end with Mengele for, given such rights,
its outcome’s something that you never know.

Unless we claim responsibility
(for genocide and feud) we can’t lay fault
at others’ doors with equanimity,
evasion, then, the customary result.

If we evade, conspiring with our wise
philosophers’ deterministic modes,
who bears the blame if truth the tale defies
and our fine fibs decides to incommode?

But to subsume ourselves, is our strange haste,
in evolutionary biology.
We don’t quite fit, and so we force the case,
so desperate all for our own nullity.