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The holy trinity


Here is something lit-like I want to talk about. But I am typing on the my way out the door. For now let me put the idea out there. Maybe others can run with it before I do.

In Louisiana cuisine there is something called the holy trinity. Three ingredients you find in practically every Cajun or Creole dish: green peppers, celery, and onions.

I've decided that in poetry there is also a holy trinity. It is the first thing I look for. And I have found that it enables me to identify poetry as poetry no matter the form, manner, syntax, metrical patterning, etc. Its ingredients are gestalt, tension, kinetic energy. Time and time again I have found that a poem that works for me, carries over to me, proves transformational, causes the shiver even, has these three properties.

I'll explain my terms later. Would be curious to know how they sit with others in the mean while.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Dec/11/2008, 8:07 pm
Dec/9/2008, 1:09 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: The holy trinity


So let me run with the idea for an hour or so before I have to get ready for tomorrow. Here is what I think I know.

All successful poetry has properties peculiar to it no matter the form, manner, or even the building blocks, say, of image, metaphor, metrics, or line rhythm. Behind it all, underneath, I want to call them the accidental features that might key the reader in to thinking she is reading a poem and not prose, there are universal properties of a poem that signal it belongs to the class of true poetry. The poem can be a haiku, a sonnet, a pantoum, a terzanelle, it can be free verse, vers libres, a prose poem, it can be Imagiste, Lang Po. Form and manner have become secondary to me. Certainly a beautiful secondary, but still secondary to what makes a poem a poem.

The history of how I've come to my thinking on what makes a poem a poem might be of some interest. It came out of being asked to serve on poetry contest judging panels. The judging forced me to seriously think about how I would choose one poem over another. I still have the list. Here is the criteria I came up with:

a successful poem has organic unity (internal form), rhythm line, gestalt, meaning, image impact, causes the shiver, metrical patterning, poetic grammar, metaphor (the energy packet), idea bodied out, kinetics, the threshold experience, authentic language, texture, transformative action, tension.

This is what I came up with some six years ago and after a few decades of thinking about what makes a poem a poem. I kept looking at the list. And the nagging thought was: yes, but what is essential to poetry? What makes for the poetry of thought no matter the accidentals of form prejudice and environmental bias. What is it in a poem by Sappho, Cavalcanti, E.B. Browning, Cavafy, Sexton, O'Hara that carries me over the top and that pierces my body?

This is how I came to the holy trinity. Gestalt of form, or when the poem creates a body that hovers above the page. Tension, or the poem's organic unity that tightly, tensely, organicly relates every part perfectly to every part. Kinetics, or the poem's energy to carry itself over from the poet to me.

To me these are the essential, universal properties of poetry. They might even constitute poetry's mandala, its archetypal unity. When I read online poetry this is my approach. When I judge my own poetry this is still my approach. This to me is what amounts to possessing poetry comprehension: can you catch the archetypal unity, the holy trinity, in the midst of, even in spite of, the accidental stuff?

Everybody knows that systems suck, come with limitations. But when I bring my agenda to bear when reading, say, the poetry of Dave, Dragonman, Caroline, Zakman, Chrisfriend, Sam, etc., more times than not I am able to get through to the poem posted. It is not a bad approach.

One more thing. The holy trinity allows for lagniappe, that something free and extra: texture.

Tere
Dec/11/2008, 9:16 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: The holy trinity


So let me run with this idea of the holy trinity for another hour or so. It is Saturday night. In two hours I'll attend a poetry room where I will serve as one of three panelists judging Slam finalists for the year. Damned if I know why they ask me to judge this stuff.

There is nothing much original about this thing I call a trinity of properties all successful poetry, in my view, possesses. The only originality I might lay claim to would be the syncretic, unifying viewpoint.

Gestalt comes first. In lit crit the term is defined this way:

Derived from the Greek and meaning form, figure, shape, it is called "a term imported from German philosophy and occassionally used in literary criticism to denote the unified whole of a literary work; its organic unity."

To me the beauty of the notion is that any work can have organic unity, no matter the formal or informal parameters. A poem in free verse, in vers libres, in prose poetry, in sonnet, terzanelle can have organic unity. More to the point a poem in strict metrical construction as much as a poem whose syntax is loose and wild both are as subject to the pass/fail test of gestalt. This inclines me to think that gestalt has less to do with codified structure and much more to do with the internally organized, organic unity of the poem's idea, the poem's conception.

But there is something else to gestalt kind of exciting. In biology there is this famous, classic test proving what biologists call gestalt identification.

A young chick, newly hatched, a few hours old was placed in a corral made of cardboard. Chick would have had no experience and had been immediately taken from its mother hen. In one corner there was placed a small cardboard box with an opening. Above the corral, pretty much centrally, hung a light bulb. The experimenter then passed his hand below the light source in such a way so that a shadow passed over the hatchling. Chick immediately ran for the cover of the cardboard box. Biologists call the hatchling's immediate reaction, untrained and innate, to a possible predator, like a hawk, gestalt identification of form.

This is how I view the gestalt of poetry. You recognize the form of it because the form of it is innate, pre-conscious, internally structured in such a way that no matter the manner or stylistic measurements the poetry of thought, or whatever you want to call it, hangs together in organic unity. It sees itself even before the poet sees it.

So let me think about tension a bit more before I draw out the idea. I got it from Hopkins.

Tere
Dec/13/2008, 7:42 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Dragon59 Profile
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Re: The holy trinity


Inscape and instress?

I like your basic concepts. I wonder, though, whenever I read something like this, if it isn't a new, personal jargon for something already known. Which is fine with me. I'm working hard trying to follow you, and make sense of it. The words I've used for what I think you're talking about are different words. It's hard to come up with a common jargon, when every poet invents a new one every time. It can lead to crosstalk when people disagree only about the terms being used in a discussion, and not about the basic points of discussion.

It goes to underline how words are symbols for meaning, not meaningful in themselves; they carry only the meanings we invest in them, that we agree upon. They have no solid and reified meaning, as symbols. Words are not quanta of meaning. This is why ambiguity in poetry can be both beautiful and fluid. I actually like it when a reader finds a meaning in one of poems that I had not consciously known was there; I don't dismiss alternative interpretations, I welcome them. (Okay, usually. No one's perfect.) Different words can point to the same shared experiences. Else there would truly be only one universal language; which there is not.

I posted my poem "a shaman's critique of pure poetry" here not long ago. It speaks more directly to your thoughts, perhaps, than my essay-style rambling can. Yes? No? Or maybe it's too didactic as a poem, even though I tried hard in that poem to evoke rather than describe; hence the unusual syntax.

When I use unusual syntax, that's its purpose: to change the way the reader puts words together, to link them differently, and maybe to bring them inside the experience of the poem via changing the way they think and link.

Of course, this drives both the neo-formalists and the grammar police nuts. Which is why I wasn't getting any useful critique anymore, on those other boards: all the discussion were talking past the poems, not about them.

Last edited by Dragon59, Dec/13/2008, 10:28 pm


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Dec/13/2008, 10:12 pm Link to this post Send Email to Dragon59   Send PM to Dragon59
 
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Re: The holy trinity


Something I've thought about a lot, as a measure of a poem's success, is: does it build a self-coherent world? does it inhabit that world, and bring me into the poem so that I experience the poem as if it were my own experience? and finally, is the world the poem creates completely self-consistent, adhering to its own internal logic and physical laws?

This latter point for me is key: a lot of poems fail because they violate their own premises, or violate their own established internal logic and worldview. Far too often the poet steps back to comment on the poem, making us hear the poet's voice, breaking through the fourth wall, as it were, and thus stilling the voice of the poem. This is why so many poems these days are just prose broken into arbitrary lines: they're essays, they're didactic, even pedantic. They tell us what to feel, rather than evoking the feeling directly. This is both cause and result of the idea that far too many poets seem to have nowadays, that poetry is a primarily verbal, mental, and intellectual. You've talked about soma before. Much current poetry lacks soma precisely because it never gets out of the head, and into the body.

Remember that one poet we mutually knew on AOL years ago, MeasurElvis? He was convinced that if he could not force the reader to get the exact meaning he intended in the poem—like some kind of puzzle-box telepathic transmission—then the poem failed. He wanted to CONTROL what the reader experienced and perceived. I argued with him a lot about this, and I don't think I ever convinced him that poetry is more than meaning forced on the reader. (He did seem to respect me, though, because I had on my bookshelves books by poets he revered that he claimed no-one had ever heard about but him.)

Contrary to forcing a specific and final meaning down the throat of the reader, I strive hard to remove my own ego-projections from a poem, even if I care deeply about it, and about what the poem means to me. I am not interested in dictating meaning. I don't want to lecture or describe, I want to EVOKE. To entice, not force. I want the reader to feel the poem as if it's a complete and self-consistent world. Even if the laws of that world are not the laws of the everyday world. In fact, it's often better when they're not.

Last edited by Dragon59, Dec/13/2008, 10:23 pm


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Dec/13/2008, 10:16 pm Link to this post Send Email to Dragon59   Send PM to Dragon59
 
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Re: The holy trinity


Good stuff, Dragonman. I remember clearly my first, involuntary response to your shaman critiquing pure poetry poem. It immediately took me up even before I started following its logic. In my parlance I would say the poem has gestalt. But, of course, it has much more. It has clinically accurate meaning and it speaks to what Graves called poetry's true language.

And you are right about the symbolic nature of words and the extent to which they can only represent meaning, not contain it. Right too you are that the limitation has both a positive and negative value. And I too have for long thought that a poem's success is, in part, determined by whether or not it is its own small world, self-referential and free standing.

As for that everyone has their own jargon when it comes to "defining" this stuff, sure. The downside is as you say: the misunderstandings. But the upside I feel is creativity the different approaches allow. Don't you think so? It is how we can all free ourselves of closed system models. The Formalist, Neo-Formalist, even Lang Po models that become templates and rather limited in my view. Actually they become like Riker mounts with poetry, art in general, getting pinned to a board.

More later. And thanks.

Tere
Dec/14/2008, 3:17 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: The holy trinity


Actually, I have time enough to cover the second point in my holy trinity: tension. And Dragonman has already given me an opening when he mentions Hopkins' notion of inscape and instress. It is where I got the idea in the first place.

Hopkins was an intensely spiritual poet. And, maybe in spite of his Jesuit ways, I figure he was something of a nature mystic. He felt that everything created, every natural object, animate and inanimate, possesses its own incape: an individual, distinctive form amounting to its own oneness. He also felt that every natural object's inscape was held together through its instress. "For the energy of being by which things are upheld and for the natural stress which determines an inscape, he used the word instress." One editor notes that Hopkins' dual notion was similar to something Shelley felt to be true, that all things contain a oneness through a spiritual 'plastic stress.' Also, Hopkins felt that the instress of a natural object not only binds the object together but also causes the sensation of inscape.

I hope I've sketched his ideas out well enough. It is a beautiful notion to me. Truly original. And so similar in conception to what an animist might hold to be true that it blows me away.

I am not a thorough Hopkins scholar. But I remember the night I was thinking about instress and inscape when it occurred to me that if this is true about natural objects, and since a poem is a natural object too, then it must be true about poetry as well. Maybe Hopkins felt the same way. Maybe he too made the extrapolation. I don't know. But realizing as much was a huge moment for me in my thinking about poetry.

I understand instress to be exactly what the compound word says it is: an in-stress, stress turned inward. And I understand Hopkins to mean that instress is the internal tension of a natural object binding it together. It is no great leap then to imagine that a poem, through its own tension, binds itself together, has unity, produces a oneness for itself. And this is exactly how the case seems to me respecting successful poetry. A poem's tension is essential to its success. And there is more. The tension created is communicable, can carry over to the reader, cause the sensation of a thing alive. Finally I think a poetry reader responds to a poem's tension in her body, pre-consciously, somaticly, much in the same way she will respond to a poem's gestalt. It even might be that a poem's tension is what can cause the shiver some readers get when they read a poem. What was it Housman said? "In short I think that the production of poetry, in its first stage, is less an active than a passive and involuntary process..." I think the same is true of poetry reading in its first stage too.

Keep in mind that what I am going after here is what is essential to a successful poem. Not what is accidental, environmentally biased, traditionally, even ideologically bound. Why is it such a pleasure to read Sappho? Why is it, say, that sometimes, actually none too infrequently, a low brow poem can cause a seizure when high brow poetry, and again none too infrequently, can keep dead on the vine no matter its polish? My sense is that there are essential reasons why poetry speaks to the body and, to say it again, in the pre-cognitive way.

Enough for now. I got one more ingredient to cover. A poem's kinetic energy, which is also an idea I borrowed from someone else.

Tere
Dec/14/2008, 4:14 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Okay. I hope I haven't bored people too much. Thanks for the chalkboard space on which I've been able to work out my imperfect equation. There is one more aspect of my holy trinity: a poem's kinetic energy. My encyclopedia reminds me that kinetic energy is defined as the energy a body possesses because it is in motion. So this is my working defintion.

I got the idea of bringing kinetic energy to a measurement of poetry from Charles Olson, the pointy headed poet who codified open form versification. Here is what said.

"The kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by the way of the poem itself, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge." Olson then goes on to say that a poem gets its energy, both as construct and discharge, through what he calls field composition. Through creating for itself its own field of energy it creates for itself its own kinetics, its own energy in motion.

And this is exactly how the case of the successful poem seems to me, form be damned, word smithing aside. If, for example, someone asked me what I felt marked the greatness of Shakespeare's sonnets, it wouldn't be because he perfected the form or because of his exquisite ear for the running rhythms in iambic pentameter. It is because each sonnet is a perfect little energy packet in perfect motion perfectly discharged. Read a handful of his sonnets and see if this is not the case.

I love this notion of Olson's. Poem viewed as possessing kinetic energy brought about by its own field composition. I especially love how it too brings to poetry something essential, something essential to all poetry, no matter the accidentals, the programs, the ideologies, etc. And I can only repeat myself. This is exactly how the case seems to me. The successful poem has its own kinetic energy through the creation of its own field-construct. And as Olson says this is precisely how a poem carry itself all the way over from poet to reader where the energy gets discharged. Maybe this too adds to the shiver some readers of poetry experience.

So there you have it. One pointy headed poet's holy trinity. Of course poetry is many things, has many properties, many nuances, many things that contribute to its beauty. But all across the spectrum I find that what is essential to poetry is its holy trinity.

Now there is something else I want to put up on the board, something greater than what might be essential to poetry. Something on occassion, and paraphrasing Lorca, that when it pierces the chest like a golden arrow's shaft, throws down all systems, mine included. Duende. But for that I'll start another thread.

Tere
Dec/20/2008, 4:21 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: The holy trinity


I want to get back to this. I don't think it's done. I just don't have time right now.

In related news, however, one of my Xmas presents to myself was to buy for myself, last week, the big 700-plus page "Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers." (Edited by Tim Rice, the professor at Stanford, who also published the collection.) It's really wonderful to have so much of Jeffers available in one volume, for about 30 bucks.

Jeffers ties into what you're talking about here, I think. I am going through what I've written about him on the Dragoncave, trying to pull together an abstract for a paper to submit to the annual Jeffers conference. It feels like this all ties together, I just don't have time right now to get into the details.

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