Friday, December 2, 2016

Hay that creaks, eyes that lift altars: How contemporary dance helped me to be a better reader of poetry

You must tread carefully when it comes to conclusions about how different arts reinforce each other. Just because you find different art forms stimulating hardly confers the right to smudge the integrity of each simply because you find the mutual influences you may detect fulfilling.

With that caveat, I have to declare that a piece Dance Kaleidoscope has put on two of its programs has helped me find a way through a knot that afflicts the interpretation and enjoyment of poetry. The dilemma is how to read a kind of fused image that showcases both stasis and motion. 

Choreographer Brock Clawson
I didn't see this for a long time, until memories of a DK guest-choreographer premiere came back in a new light. Originally, Brock Clawson's "Lake Effect Snow" struck me in my blog review for its look inside the emotions of a protagonist (danced by Noah Trulock) as both actual events and dream-states influence him.

That's one kind of fusion that this piece encompasses superbly.  But "Lake Effect Snow" has also stayed in my memory for the way it covers a spectrum ranging from stillness, or minimal motion, focusing on the protagonist, to rapidly paced movement — some involving him, some of it for the ensemble— in whole or in part. With its narrative emphasis, "Lake Effect Snow" enfolds within its movement vocabulary the progress of time itself. But stillness, especially with the solo dancer seated on a bench, his back to the audience, or in fleeting arm-around-the-shoulder hugs with another, is a crucial part of a narrative that privileges change. And a wonderful unity is achieved.

Poetry, like dance, is also linear. But dance has the advantage, when it is as skillful as Clawson's piece, of telling a story in contrasts of movement and stasis that make sense in more than the practical sense of husbanding dancers' energy and giving them and the audience "paragraphs" into which the choreography's discourse falls. Even more important, its handling of time can be more natural, especially because lyric poetry,  while the reader takes it in over time, is a block of unmoving words you can readily come back to. Poetic imagery has to do extra work, sometimes by fusing different sense impressions to represent both what we see as portraiture or still life and what we move through. This can cause problems for interpreters.
Swinburne: Can sandals be bound over speed?

One of those problems spurred this essay. A vastly experienced literary critic allowed himself to be tripped up by what he found in one poem, only to praise the same kind of device a few pages later. Terry Eagleton, in "How to Read a Poem," heaps scorn on a stanza of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon," introducing it as an example of the poet's "worst":

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
     Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
     With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
     Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night. 

In a brief analysis, Eagleton notes with asperity that "the narcotic music of the words works to muffle the meaning." But only by taking the most literal view of Swinburne's imagery can the critic find this stanza short on meaning. "It's hard to see how you can bind on a sandal over speed," he says, also scoffing at the last line: "How can day and night have feet?"  

Yet, less than ten pages later, in the course of praising the unconventional form of
Robert Lowell's creaking hay got a critic's approval.
Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider,"  Eagleton incidentally admires the same kind of fused image he deplored in Swinburne (1837-1909): "The homely image of the hay creaking to the barn, where the  imaginative masterstroke of 'creaking' redeems what might otherwise prove too banal a phrase, comes wrapped within a highly sophisticated manipulation of metre." Here's the stanza: 

  I saw the spiders marching through the air,
  Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
      In latter August when the hay
      Came creaking to the barn. But where
        The wind is westerly,
  Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
  Into the apparitions of the sky,
  They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea....

How can hay creak? one might ask if one were echoing Eagleton. And can't you indeed bind a sandal over speed, if "speed" is understood as being a potential quality of a runner's stationary foot, soon to move fleetly in one of mythology's most famous foot races? In the same way, the hay being moved to the barn is itself motionless and noiseless, but on a wagon moving into the barn, it takes on the "creaking" of the vehicle hauling it. Lowell (1917-1977) has fused sight and sound.

It is somewhat forced but not false for poetry to do something that dance accomplishes naturally. In a continuum, the meaning of a dance piece's still moments is caught up in episodes when there is quite a bit of movement. Sometimes stillness and movement are simultaneous, as they are at various points in "Lake Effect Snow." Together, they help create the work's significance.

Before leaving Swinburne, it's worth noting that Eagleton scorns the stanza's next-to-last line, dismissing the language about east and west at opposite ends of daytime as "merely verbal counters to shuffle around in place of genuine observation." In fact, the progress of time is one of the main ways we measure motion, so that using fragile descriptors for dawn and dusk emphasizes the brief temporal hold each phenomenon has on our experience of days: Phenomena that are "faint" and "wan" in snapshot perceptions can, under the spell of passing time, also quicken and shiver. "The passage is full of florid gestures and empty of substance," says this learned critic, in my view missing the point.
Hart Crane: Much to explain.

This kind of fused image is not hard to find in poetry. Hart Crane (1899-1932), a poet whose complexities both excited and baffled his contemporaries, used one in the middle of "Voyages: II," and explained it in an essay, "General Aims and Theories." The phrase is "adagios of islands" in this stanza:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,--
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Crane wrote: "The reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc." Obviously, the islands are stationary. Assigning a slow tempo to them is really placing them in relation to the observer's being on a boat moving slowly among them.

Crane was a poet with a lot of explaining to do, some of it forced on him by editors and patrons. An anthologized exchange of correspondence in 1926 with Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, offers many fascinating insights into Crane's procedures, including what I am calling fused images, where two different kinds of perception are blended. Here's the third stanza of "At Melville's Tomb":

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars. 

The third line, Crane wrote Miss Monroe, "refers simply to a conviction that man, not knowing perhaps a definite god yet being endowed with a reverence for deity  — such a man naturally postulates a deity somehow and the altar of that deity by the very action of the eyes lifted in searching."

"Lift" is a powerful verb, because it involves both movement and exertion. It's no accident that lifts are such an important feature of both classical and modern dance. It also has symbolic import, suggesting ascent to some element or realm above this world. Crane makes the word work extra hard here, because it is actually the eyes that lift their gaze aloft in search of a deity. Here that motion fuses with the stationary heaviness of altars in the actual world.

Robert Frost preferred unfused imagery.
Some poets are averse to this kind of verbal welding. They may want to contemplate the yin/yang of stillness and movement, but they prefer to set them side by side, as Robert Frost (1874-1963) does in "The Most of It.

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all. 

There are bookends of stillness around the extraordinary movement described here. The concluding bookend is particularly powerful in that it suggests that the meaning the human observer wants so badly to extract from nature seems both final and questionable. In between falls this narrative of a powerful creature emerging from the lake, past the man on the "boulder-broken beach" and into the woods. 

If he were not temperamentally opposed to what he might have seen as a blurring of experience instead of feeling a duty to clarify it, Frost might have worked on an image like the buck lifting the lake (where the lake is a metonym for the "crumpled water" it's pushing), or perhaps (to bring in the element of sound) booming the lake as it emerged from the water. Frost's poetry is instead full of clear-eyed contrasts of stillness and motion.

Fused imagery is thus not for everyone. And the temptation to contrast something seen as still, as if in a mental photo album, with the motion it represents may mislead a lesser poet.

Rod McKuen: Definitely not going with the flow.
Many years ago I dipped into Rod McKuen (1933-2015), hugely popular at the time, to find this prose-poem passage. I just now located it again online, since I don't have any of his books. Here's McKuen: "I have no special bed. I give myself to those who offer love. Can it be wrong? Lonely rivers going to the sea give themselves to many brooks in passing. So it is with me...."

No, it isn't, Rod. He's so anxious to show his willingness to merge with others — it's an almost creepy sort of intimacy with McKuen — that he reverses nature by having rivers flow into tributaries, rather than vice versa. A poet may thus confuse himself  in searching to fuse something still (the river system as a structure, as if seen statically from above) and something moving (actual river flow). So may a critic (Eagleton on Swinburne) in trying to apprehend this sort of imagery.

Such fusion is entirely natural to dance, particularly in works with an implied narrative. Clawson's protagonist in "Lake Effect Snow" owns his solitude and his quiet moments in addition to episodes that engage him actively with others. It's all of a piece.

Dancers don't flow into tributaries, and they may well bind sandals onto speed.

A reader of poetry can learn much from dance, and come back to poetry with renewed insight and appreciation.

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