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.