Sunday, March 18, 2012

Swimming in 1937: Notes on the Metapoetic

A while ago Alfred Corn told me I was fundamentally an ekphrastic poet—a poet who wrote about works of art, including other poems.  For better or for worse, this is entirely right.  I think it has something to do with being a poet and a critic (I began as a mostly-poet poet/critic, and I've become a mostly-critic poet/critic, but that's another story).  For me, poetry has often been a carrying on of literary criticism by other means, means less conceptual than intuitive.  Maybe this orientation to poetry lay behind my attraction to the work of Göran Printz-Påhlson, the late, grand, idiosyncratic Swedish scholar, critic and poet whose English language works it fell to me to gather for publication after his death.

I met Printz-Påhlson only a few times, at Lunds Universitet where I was teaching,  at his house in Malmö, and at a meeting of a conference of European poets in the late 90s—but I immediately felt we were on the same wavelength.  We loved many of the same things in music and literature, and our circles of friends overlapped in strange, complex ways.  But it wasn't just the man's personal qualities that I admired: I admired his work.  He was tremendously polymath and open to the virtues of almost any aesthetic or set of concepts: Michael Anania called him "a careening enthusiast."  He was also able to make poems about poetry that really were poems, not just illustrations of ideas.  Indeed, one of his major modes is metapoetry, and he can even write graceful poems not just about poetry, but about metapoetry itself: meta-meta poems, if you will.  One of my favorites in this style is called "Comedians," a mid-length piece dedicated to Kenneth Koch.  It's written in a single long stanza, but I see it as consisting of five different movements of variable length.

It begins like this:

Before it had become fashionable to write poetry
about writing poetry, it was considered
so exceedingly difficult it was next
to impossible, or perhaps it was considered impossible,
How can one possibly do this, one thought,
surely one must lose one's concentration,
or the flow of rhythm, or metaphors, or something
(or, perhaps, one didn't think of it at all).

That, to my mind, is the first movement: a straightforward enough statement of the difficulty of metapoetry.  Then there's a screeching U-turn of a volta, and the poem turns to describe what seems to be something else entirely in the second movement, the longest of the five:

But consider instead a little girl in, say, 1937
who has come down to the seaside with her parents
and nanny (she is that sort of girl) and has
after some token resistance been enrolled
with the private swimming instructor, and walks
every morning with her inflatable yellow-
patterned little wings (how the thirties loved yellow)
down to the beach, with the cold washboard clay
and small brown dried starfish, and pink shells.  She
thinks: OK, I'll go along so far, but I shall never really
learn to swim, learn to float like a boat in water.
And she goes on, irritated with her elder sister
who is carrying on a flirtation with the handsome
swimming instructor in his baggy blue trunks,
and being teased by her kid brother as
she struggles on top of her wings, her body,
arched backwards, her eyes closed and mouth
puckered as for a kiss.  She dreams every
night that she is floating through cool, green
water, saying hello to the sea-horses and the fish,
and sometimes she paints in her dream an
oil-painting, something along the lines of Géricault,
where she and two friends are cowering
clutched in each other's arms on the gaudy
stripes of the inflatable mattress while
breakers of incredible size are washing the
jetty protecting the little harbor.  

It seems we've left poetry about poetry entirely behind, and are instead dealing with a little piece of realism, not without its well-made bits of sense-impression.  I particularly like the "cold washboard clay" of the beach: I've felt the like of it under my feet many times.

Does it matter that it's 1937?  Sure it does.  Given that it puts us on the eve of some of the most horrifying events in European history, it adds a certain poignancy to the picture.  A sheltered little girl is one thing: a sheltered little girl at a time when no shelter can be counted upon to hold up for long is another.

But Printz-Påhlson's not just giving us a vividly depicted piece of pathos.  He's setting us up for another turn, back to metapoetry.  The bit about the girl the girl saying she'll only go so far with this swimming business, and not really learn to swim, and the bit in which she dreams a kind of Raft of the Medusa will both take on a new aspect after the third movement, which goes like this:

                                                             But one day
when the summer is close to its end and the
morning as crisp as green September hazelnuts,
she forgets everything and—hey presto—she is friends
with the water.  'Soon I can swim without my wings,'
she thinks by herself, 'soon I can fly without air,
without rhythm, without metaphors...Wait a minute,'
she says to herself, indignant (she is that kind of girl),
'I am being used as a metaphor now.  Well I never...'

When swimming without wings morphs into flying "without rhythms, without metaphors," the echo of the poem's earlier language about metapoetry is clear.  Suddenly, we see the girl's activities in the second movement as being like the moment when poetry passes over into metapoetry.  In the first movement, we were told that poets once hesitated about writing metapoetry, thinking it was too difficult, and we now see how the girl's resistance to learning to swim can be a metaphor for poetry slipping into metapoetry: the girl, like the poet, resists the act, but then suddenly, without really knowing it until after it's happened, she's done it: she's begun swimming, just as a poem (this one, say) can suddenly switch from being about its apparent topic, and become a poem about poetry.

The Géricault dream takes on a new aspect, too.  The fact that the girl goes from worrying about floating, to dreaming about perilous floating, shows a movement from being to reflecting: a movement from realism to something meta-.  But there's more than that: the girl doesn't just dream about her experience: she dreams about making an artwork about her experience.  It's a matter of dreaming about painting about the experience she's had: a kind of meta- meta- moment.  And since this is going to be a not just a poem about poetry, but a poem about poems about poetry, that's a very apt thing for Printz-Påhlson to have her do.

That would probably be poem enough to satisfy most readers right there.  But there's another abrupt volta, a quick turn leading into the fourth movement of the poem:

But there she is wrong.  The poem, if it is any good at all
is never about writing poetry, but rather about
making jokes, or love, or deceit; once again she (in
spite of her perky independence of mind) and the reader
have together been led up that proverbial old
garden path.

There's a knowing disingenuousness to this, isn't there?  A kind of false modesty by a poet who's just given us some very intricate metapoetry.  Can Printz-Påhlson really mean this?  Does he want to dismiss his own metapoetic reflections?  Of course not.  He's just setting us up for one final turn, into the poem's fifth and final movement:

But, in that case, consider a boy
on the first day of spring when the rain has just stopped,
playing with marbles up that old garden path,
water-logged by the rains…

What had seemed a simple, even banal figure of speech at the end of the fourth movement ("led up the garden path") now becomes not figurative but literal: it's a real garden path, with realistic detail about being waterlogged, a garden path on which the boy can travel.  This is fascinating! We've just been told that good poems don't bother with metapoetry, and suddenly we find a figurative language turned into non-figurative language.  What does this mean?  On the one hand, it re-enforces the point about leaving metapoetry behind, and turning to realism: it says "leave off the fancy language games that some people think make poetry poetry, and stick to the referents, the real story, like the one about this boy."  On the other hand, it draws attention to the "led up the garden path" figure of speech as a figure of speech, and in taking the old figure and making it literal, it makes the literal artifice of the poem apparent to us.  So even as the passage says "stick to stories, not language play" it also, at the very same time, says "look at how great language games are!"  It tells us that metapoetry is no good, and it also shows us that metapoetry and all its self-conscious artifice is where the real action is to be found.

The double gesture here, toward realism and toward knowingly-presented linguistic tropes, is emphasized by the way the speaker's direction to consider this boy echoes his earlier direction to consider the girl.  In one sense, the parallelism ("But" introducing an anecdote about a child) indicates that the two anecdotes may have a similar point to them.  The girl's story was about the subtle, inevitable nature of metapoetry: it just creeps up on you when you're writing, and all poems end up with some kind of metapoetic potential, even when the poet, like the girl, protests.  We don't get the boy's story, but the parallelism in structure indicates we might be ending with something that would affirm the same things that the girl's story affirms.  In another sense, though, we're encouraged to see the untold boy's story as something that might contradict the girl's story.  We're in the realm of the masculine, after all, not the feminine.  And while the girl's story was about going into the water, the boy wants to play with marbles on a water-logged path: surely he'll want to seek some dry, sandy patch, not the mud: he'll want to get away from the water.

It's a wonderfully balanced poem: it's about metapoetry, and it both praises the stuff and denigrates it.  It tells us about the inevitability of the metapoetic dimension, and turns us back to mimesis, story, and things in the world beyond the poem.  The closest analogy I can think of is Robert Hass' "Heroic Simile," but even that excellent poem lacks the full set of dimensions we get in this unsung gem of a poem.

If you're interested in the full range of what Printz-Påhlson's prodigious imagination was capable of, you'll have to learn Swedish.  But if you want to see what he could accomplish in English poetry and critical prose, you can find a selection I admire in Letters of Blood and Other Works in English.  There are hardcover and paperback editions, and the Kindle version is only eight bucks.


  1. Hmn. Is it possible (acceptable) to like your exegesis of the poem, what you find in the poem, and yet not like the poem itself very much? That's where I find myself. I appreciate the arguments and ideas you use the poem to make, but I find myself disliking the poem for exactly the reason you use here:

    "leave off the fancy language games that some people think make poetry poetry, and stick to the referents, the real story, like the one about this boy."

    I compare in my mind this poem to one of similar length and thoughtfulness by George Seferis, and find this one pale. I'm also thinking of Tranströmer. Is it all just a matter of taste, what kind of poetry you like as a poet/critic vs. what kind of poetry I like as a poet/artist?

    Maybe I just get stuck there at that precise point of feeling suspicious of "fancy language" done mainly for its own sake, but I usually don't find meta-poetry (meta-fiction) interesting unless it's extremely well-done, or quite unlike anything else. Borges. Barry Lopez. Some of Clayton Eshleman, a little Sam Hamill, a lot of Jim Harrison.

    But what I dislike about meta-poetry when it's smug in its fanciness is exactly what I dislike about LangPo or Silliman's "post-avant": the very lack of connection to real experience, the wallowing in mental/intellectual states, the disembodiment and disconnection from what language refers to, and where language fails utterly. (I have yet to read any convincing meta-poetry involved with terminal illness or funerals, where language often fails us.) There's often a sotto voce nose-in-the-air attitude that you'd better agree that THIS is what poetry is, or we'll look down at you, metaphorically speaking.

    Granted that poetry uses metaphor by nature, yet I find haiku much more interesting than most meta-poetry, because of its immediacy, its intimacy, its silences. The big difference between haiku poets and meta-poets is that haiku poets appreciate silence, while meta-poets, suffused as they are with the fun of language play, just won't shut up. Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck in a restaurant next to a loud table of folks who don't care how annoying they are to the other patrons.

    Maybe mate-poetry is inevitable, as you say. I would submit however that it may not be inevitable for any reason other than that artists like to make art about art, because it's a form of self-knowledge, or self-understanding. Every poet sooner or later writes an ars poetica, even if they avoid labeling it that. (One of my favorites is Hamill's short "Arse Poetica," which is somewhat ekphrastic on its own.)

    What is ekphrasis after all but artists considering art? I certainly appreciate ekkphrasis, and practice it myself. Still, most of the art I produce is a response to experience, rather than a response to other art. The difference may be a just a difference in kind of dialogue: dialogue with the life vs. dialogue with art. I fully recognize that that's an intellectual distinction with permeable membranes between categories. Nonetheless, dialogue with nature and life (the girl at the seaside) seems much more vivid to me than the dialogue with other dialogues (meta-poetry). One veers occasionally towards the "let's keep our human place in nature in perspective" of Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Gary Snyder, and other poets of that stream.

  2. Hmmm. Sounds like what you don't like is the genre, rather than the individual example. I, personally, can't stand dogs (dear dog lovers: please do not attack me for this). So I'm not much of a judge of them. Sure, I can respect the occasional super-dog, the St. Bernard who rescues the swimmer, the clearly excellent sheep dog, or what have you. But I'm so averse to the creatures that by and large my objections to the whole lot of them preclude me from being able to say much about how one specimen is superior to others.


  3. it would be more accurate to say that I keep trying to like the genre, but its individual representations keep coming up short. My roots are in the avant-garde, so I actually am sympathetic to the theories and ideas behind the post-avant, behind LangPo, behind meta-poetry and meta-fiction. I was a John Cage follower well before college.

    All of which is why I do appreciate your examination of the poem here, and the ideas behind it, such as ekphrasis.

    Where things keep falling up short, though, is that the poems don't live up to the ideas behind them. That's partly because poetry that is limited to intellectual interest doesn't reach very deep into my soma. I readily admit that my idea of poetry is that it's supposed to recreate an experience in the reader, that it needs to be something that gets under your skin, something more than just mental. So that's my bias, readily admitted. I like poetry to move me more than intellectually. I've gone so far as to write an essay or two on my own blog advocating the viewpoint that poetry written ONLY from one mode ultimately fails. It's the synergy of all aspects of life that make the poetry live, too.

    So, it's not that I don't like the genre. It's that so often poems produced by the genre disappoint.

    1. Gotcha. Me, I live mostly in my head. It took me a long time to be okay with that.


  4. I too dislike (what I perceive to be) smugness in poetry or any obvious 'lack of connection to real experience'. Yet I found this poem delightful (though I am not at all the sure the full range of its playfulness would have been evident to me without Bob's enjoyable stroll along its garden path). It plays with the the idea of meta-poetry but also remains grounded in the realm of the senses. That enviable narrative ease seems to me to be a largely American trait: Koch, or O'Hara, Padgett and more recently Goldbarth and Hoagland.

    1. It's fitting then, that the poem is dedicated to Kenneth Koch!

      I think the connection to Goldbarth is right, too -- he weaves different stories, and different levels of self-reflectiveness, together seamlessly in those talky poems of his.


  5. Yes, I wish I could learn Swedish, because my grampa was from there. What an honor for you to be entrusted with these poems.

    As a writer whose work is set in the thirties, I agree that it is one of the most haunted of all decades.

  6. Swedish is a perfectly rational language that I speak in some kind of horrible pidgin version. The Swedes are too polite to laugh when I try, but I can see in their eyes that they're waiting to joke about it later over some lutefisk.