Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric

Fowles in the frith,
The fisses in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of bon and blood.

[Birds in the woods, fish in the stream, and I’m going mad. I walk with much sorrow for the best (or beast) of bone and blood.]

These brief five lines, found on a single page in a legal manuscript amid lists of names and dates, have attracted considerable attention in modern times, though their interpretation remains highly uncertain. The concision and elaborate sound-play of the piece have charmed readers even as experts cannot agree on the poem’s theme. The very mystery of the text may be itself admired, if the ambiguity be a sort that results not in lack of communication, but in the more precise communication of a more complex theme.

The unfolding of the sound pattern is a marvel of incantation, justifying the poem as a virtuoso melodic invention. The alliteration with the f-sound in the first line is repeated in the second to a resounding three-beat accentual rhythm. The third line turns instead to alliteration on w which is continued in the fourth and, in the end, all is swept away with three stressed words in the final line beginning with b.

This tight alliterative pattern, drawing on the Old English poetic tradition is combined with the ABBAB rhyme scheme to knit the whole into an almost hypnotic spell. The lovely music of the piece is self-sufficient, though many recordings exist due to the two-part musical notation accompanying the poem.

When these powerful phonic effects are linked to a semantic structure so delicately poised that an approximately equal number of critics have read the poem as an expression of romantic love and of Christian faith. The secular reading, which was dominant until the 1960s, treats the first two lines as the most conventional of medieval love poetry openings: a reverdie. Presumably the original form of the convention was equivalent to Tennyson line in “Locksley Hall”: “In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” “Foweles in the frith” tropes on the expression by reversing that sympathy with nature. In this poem all nature is fertile and thriving, but the speaker is depressed, presumably due to his lover’s lack of complaisance. The hyperbolic compliment (“beste of bon and blood”), the woman’s coolness, and the lover’s consequent suffering are among the expected components of the sort of courtly love familiar from countless other texts. The phrase itself appears with very nearly meaning the same other love lyrics such as “The Fair Maid of Ribbesdale” and “Blow, northerne wind.”

Early scholars took the poem without question as an expression of romantic love. Yet in the 60s another school of thought arose to whom the lines required a Christian reading. [1] For them the speaker is an Everyman suffering, “mourning and weeping in the valley of tears” while nature chugs on, grandly unbothered. [2] But the religious interpreters do not agree on the poem’s end. One camp favors the Hebrew scriptural association and the other the Greek. [3] Among the former, the word “beste” in the last line is read as meaning “beast,” and the derangement of the speaker, so out of tune with the rest of nature, is the result of original sin. A variety of Biblical passages have been adduced in support of this interpretation. The word beast is indeed used the Psalms to indicate a fallible, sinning person [4] In another Psalm the thoughtless human is identified with the brute creation. [5] The poem’s final line, read in this manner, might be paraphrased as “ I live in pain because I am a physical being, afflicted with His sorrow is the sorrow of Genesis 3:17 to which postlapsarian mankind is universally subject. As a creature of blood and bone, he feels the prick of thorns and thistles. The “unfallen” birds and fish, unburdened by original sin, enjoy a sort of bliss the tortured, self-conscious human envies.

Thomas Moser found that there are sixteen mentions of birds and fish together in the Christian Bible, thirteen on the Old Testament and three in the New. The two, encapsulating as they do the worlds of the air and the sea, are first linked in the creation story which describes both as the sole creations of the fifth day. Several ancient Hebrew passages imply just the sort of gap between humanity and the rest of the animal world that maddens the speaker in “Foweles in the frith.” Psalm 8 praises God for the birds and fish as marvels of his handiwork, yet asks “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Similarly in Job beasts, birds, and fish are all called to astonish and awe, to humble the human, asking the devastating and unanswerable question: “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” [6] The poem from this point of view delivers the same chastening reminder of the wretchedness of humankind in contrast to the brute creation.

Some, however, would maintain the romantic love reading of “beste of bon and blood,” but consider this as referring to Jesus Christ, the paragon. Christ is, after all, to them the Man of Sorrows foreseen by Isaiah. [7] Christ, too, was estranged from creation, enduring particular extreme suffering. As Matthew has it, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” [8] The poem’s speaker is sympathetically identifying with Christ’s suffering as Christians seeking to follow the imitatio Christi have done throughout history.

Ambiguity need not be a result of sloppiness. (In fact, I suspect that it is a major rhetorical device in Chinese poetry; it certainly is in Elizabethan.) I have here mentioned only a few of the puns and ambiguities of this little lyric. The two or three readings of “Foweles in the frith” continue to contend because, far from excluding each other, each elaborates, enriches, and, in the end, reinforces the others. Lyric is typically an expression of affect. This poem is like a cameo engraved with a mythological scene in which the hero battles a monster. The enemy might be a woman who rejects the poet. For a person of a different sensibility, it would be the ineluctable nastiness of our lives with which the ego fights, or the contemplation of such undeserved suffering projected onto a divine (or human/divine) figure. The emotional truth remains the same. The vision of a rich a thriving nature constantly reproducing itself without existential woe is identical for each reading. The consequences of being made of bone and blood does not change. It is this underdetermination that gives the poem its magic.

1. "A Critical Approach to the Middle English Lyric”, College English 27 (February 1966).

2. From the Salve Regina.

3. Thomas Moser’s PMLA article vol. 102, no. 3, May 1987.

4. For instance in Psalm 73.

5. 49.

6. Job 12.

7. 53:3.

8. 8:20.

“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning

The texts of the songs follow the essay.

While a rolling stone may indeed gather no moss, a poetic image can accumulate meaning with repeated usage in a way that adds semantic territory while it influences the interpretation of past poems. Both oral and written literary forms depend for their density of coded meaning on such accretion of meaning over time as identical or related images are repeatedly reused by one artist after another.

“Spoonful” is a central image in the lyric world of the blues. “All I Want Is A Spoonful” by Papa Charlie Jackson was recorded in 1925, and “Spoonful Blues” in 1929 by Charley Patton, placing it in the deepest Delta tradition; Mississippi John Hurt sang used the phrase in “Coffee Blues”; in 1960 Howlin’ Wolf sang Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” which then spread toward rock and roll in myriad versions, including those by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Cream, and the Grateful Dead, not to mention the group that called itself the Lovin’ Spoonful. Originally signifying simply “a small amount,” the term comes in time to suggest explosive sexuality, high quality, and a junkie’s fix.

In Jackson’s song the singer asks his love object for just a bit of loving, a spoonful. It is not necessary to “call or write,” her cooking is superfluous, love is his goal. He focuses on that moment of love-making, though it be snatched in passing: “Throw it out the window, I'll catch it ‘fore it falls.” The woman’s identity is secondary; in fact, “There ain’t no one woman got it all.” Through the entire lyric, it is the woman who gives the “spoonful,” that minimal dose of most satisfying love; the man can only plead. Here the phrase clearly emphasizes how little the persona is asking of her, and, accordingly, how churlish would be her refusal. The lady’s position, if Lucy Mae is an example, is equally undiscriminating: she will accept the singer or any handy “monkey man.” [1]

For “spoonful” the locus classicus must be Charlie Patton’s 1929 recording. In this eloquent and fragmented performance, the speaker again asks his beloved for a spoonful, saying that it is “all I want in this creation.” Yet here her response mirrors his need. Women themselves are “goin’ crazy, every day in their life,” looking for that spoonful. And the ante has increased so that disorder (like that of the song itself), violence, legal retribution, even death may follow the quest. Spoken interjections like “wanna fight!” “would you slap me? Yes I will!” and “I’d kill him” disrupt the melody. The spoonful has caused men to do life in prison. The meaning, originally “a little bit,” has become charged with a powerful sexual implication that threatens at every moment to explode. The original common ground of vehicle and tenor – small quantity – has vanished in irony. Now it is all the greater marvel that a mere spoonful of sexual desire could be so powerful.

When Mississippi John Hurt picked up the phrase in his “Coffee Blues,” he used the Maxwell House advertising phrase “good to the last drop” which had been introduced in 1917. [2] In Hurt’s song, this simply signifies the high and reliable quality of the coffee or loving, equally relished at the outset and the conclusion of the encounter. With his sweet faux naïf pose, Hurt no sooner introduces the advertising slogan than he identifies it with his beloved who would prepare coffee for him. Hurt’s charming lyrics, delivered with the easy-going lilt of his simple melodic lines, only touch on the disruptive potential of his theme. A preacher may lay his Bible down when tempted by a spoonful. When the persona’s beloved leaves for unknown reasons, he can only follow after and, speaking in a proper and polite manner (“please, ma'am”) ask like a tramp at the door for “just” a lovin’ spoonful. He concludes with praise of love, figured as a taste of Maxwell House coffee.

Working with this rich bed of earlier associations, Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” emphasizes the destructive potential of that little bit of love that constitutes the spoonful. “One little spoon” of “your precious love” is “good enough,” yet people “lie, “cry,” “die,” and “fight” about it. The repetitions of this simple ironic motif – so much can emerge from so little – at once marvel at human sexuality and fully participate within it. When asked, Dixon himself commented, “The idea of Spoonful was that it doesn't take a large quantity of anything to be good.”

From the time of the Folk Revival in the late 50s and the rock version of hip in the late 60s, the popularity of blues standards spread to white audiences. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “Spoonful” is one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”

New uses of the spoonful image arose among musicians and songwriters favoring the counter-cultural and the taboo. The old association with semen gained strength (Perhaps my own place in the structure of society is implied by the fact that I find this meaning valid, though secondary or tertiary, even in the old songs.) For the British critic Paul Oliver, the image refers to “sexual intercourse in a standing position.” [4] The use of spoonful to refer to a junkie’s spoon for cooking up his stuff is a natural extension of meaning for those whose greatest passion was not sexual. Though to Willie Dixon “People who think Spoonful was about heroin are mostly people with heroin ideas,” the image works. Dope and sex both offer the potential for bliss and for ruin. Life is full of disturbance, often over the smallest of things.

As with other powerful images, this explication could proceed, in the most outstanding cases, almost without limit, until an entire vision of reality is suggested. The songs here cited indicate some elements of the semantic field of “spoonful.” The charm of all metaphors is their open-endedness. As any two things have some points in common and others in which they differ, any combination of objects will form a metaphor, creating a fabulous multiplication of potential for meaning. The fact that each of the songs in the “spoonful” lineage moved and excited listeners indicates that each found precision in the underdetermined image that resonated with lived experience and aesthetic sense in a way that ordinary discourse does not attempt to do.

1. A monkey man in Ida Cox’ song is a country boy, interchangeable with many others, who could never make it in Chicago. Peg Leg Powell sings in a different song “When God made me he didn't make no monkey man.” On the other hand the Rolling Stones proclaim “Well I am just a monkey man/ I’m glad you are a monkey, monkey woman too, babe.”

2. I find no prior use of that phrase (though to “milk to the last drop,” a fine down-home image with a quite different meaning, did exist).

3. In I am the Blues: the Willie Dixon Story, 148.

4. Screening the Blues, 198-9.

All I Want Is a Spoonful (Papa Charlie Jackson)

I told you once, this makes twice
That's last dime, don't you call or write
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

You can brown your gravy, fry your steak
Sweet mama, don't make no mistake
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

Just as sure as the winter follows the fall
There ain't no one woman got it all
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

Lucy Mae's a woman that you can't understand
Well she's lookin' for you or a monkey man
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

Now, cool kind mama, says you needn't to stall
Throw it out the window, I'll catch it 'fore it falls
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful

I got the blues so bad, I couldn't sleep last night
My cool kind mama want to fuss and fight
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful

Now I'm so glad that the dog can't talk
If you [can, keep him/it/'er staked, save a morning walk]
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful

Now if you don't believe that I can run mighty fast
Ask that man that run me last
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

A Spoonful (Charley Patton )

(Spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful)

In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon'
The women goin' crazy, every day in their life 'bout

It's all I want, in this creation is a...
I go home (spoken: wanna fight! ) 'bout a...

Doctor's dyin' (way in Hot Springs! ) just 'bout a...
These women goin' crazy every day in their life 'bout

Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I will! ) just
'Bout a...
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my...

(Spoken: Don't take me long! ) to get my...
Hey baby, you know I need my...

It's mens on Parchman (done lifetime) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I ain't long) 'bout my...

It's all I want (spoken: honey, in this creation) is

I go to bed, get up and wanna fight 'bout a...
(Spoken: Look-y here, baby, would you slap me? Yes I
Will! ) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I'm a fool a-) 'bout my...

Would you kill a man? (spoken: Yes I would, you know
I'd kill him) just 'bout a...
Most every man (spoken: that you see is) fool 'bout

(Spoken: You know baby, I need) that ol'...
Hey baby, (spoken: I wanna hit the judge 'bout a) 'bout

(Spoken: Baby, you gonna quit me? Yeah honey! ) just
'Bout a...
It's all I want, baby, this creation is a...

(Spoken: look-y here, baby, I'm leavin' town! ) just
'Bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I need) that ol'...

(Spoken: Don't make me mad, baby! ) 'cause I want my...
Hey baby, I'm a fool 'bout that...

(Spoken: Look-y here, honey! ) I need that...
Most every man leaves without a...

Sundays' mean (spoken: I know they are) 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: I'm sneakin' around here) and ain't
Got me no...
Oh, that spoon', hey baby, you know I need my

Coffee Blues (Mississipi John Hurt)

This is the 'Coffee Blues', I likes a certain brand Maxwell's House, it's good till the last drop Just like it says on the can, I used to have a girl Cookin' a good Maxwell House, she moved away Some said to Memphis and some said to Leland
But I found her, I wanted her to cook me Some good Maxwell's House, you understand? If I can get me just a spoonful of Maxwell's House Do me much good as two or three cups this other coffee
I've got to go to Memphis,
bring her back to Leland
I wanna see my baby
'bout a lovin' spoonful,
my lovin' spoonful
Well, I'm just got to have my lovin', I found her
Good mornin', baby,
how you do this mornin'?
Well, please, ma'am,
just a lovin' spoon,
just a lovin' spoonful
I declare, I got to have my lovin' spoonful
My baby packed her suitcase and she went away
I couldn't let her stay for my lovin',
my lovin' spoonful
Well, I'm just got to have my lovin'
Good mornin', baby, how you do this mornin'?
Well, please, ma'am, just a lovin' spoon,
just a lovin' spoonful I declare,
I got to have my lovin' spoonful
Well, the preacher in the pulpit,
jumpin' up and down
He laid his Bible down for his lovin'
in't Maxwell House all right?

Spoonful (Willie Dixon, sung also by Howlin’ Wolf and others)

It could be a spoonful of coffee
It could be a spoonful a-tea
But one little spoon
Of your precious love
Is good enough for me

Men lie about that spoonful
Some cry about that spoonful
Some die about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

It could be a spoonful a-water
To save you from the desert sand
But one spoon of lead
From my forty-five
Will save you from another man

Men lie-ii about that spoonful
Some cry-ii about that spoonful
Some die-ii about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

It could be a spoonful a-sugar
It could be a spoonful a-tea
But one little spoon
Of your precious love
Is good enough for me-ee

Men lie-ii about that spoonful
Some cry-ii about that spoonful
Some die-ii about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
A-that spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful.

Some Poetry Reviews

1. These short bits were in Chronogram.

Georganna Millman, Set Theory, Finishing Line Press, $12.00.

Georganna Millman’s Set Theory proves less abstract than the title and the glyphs on the cover might suggest. In fact her poems quickly establish an elegiac confidential domestic tone (“I will tell you everything.”) that focuses on mortality most of all (“one misfire behind the eyes/ a migraine’s clutch rush of regret.”). Time is processed here through nature: “trapped fingerling trout” or a dead coyote in the snow. Her work is rooted in the region (with poems on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and Utsayantha) and in everyday life including connubial bliss (too little sung) “Slick rapture – I am full of anticipation.” From her Catskills window she sees “a shock of fresh blood” in a snowstorm whose flakes seem no less than “lovers in free-fall.”

Lee Gould, Weeds, Finishing Line Press, $12.00.

In title at least more democratic than Leaves of Grass, Lee Gould’s Weeds remains capable of a certain prophetic ambition. Though the author can indulge dreams and even whimsy, there is generally an edge to the fantasy (as in the screams of the female mountain lion in “The Basics” or the “Mermaid” that Goldie, who used to play “gin rummy with Uncle Harry” became). “Rope Burn” is incandescent with eroticism and “Routine Check-Up, Age 13” greets puberty with a vision of “skinny dipping every night/ in phosphorescent lakes.” But death is a more prominent theme in this collection: “We become at last food, God, for you.” The volume concludes with “Song of Songs,” in which, if death is not quite transcended by love, it is subdued for the moment.

Frank Boyer, Jumping Out of my Skin: Poems and Microfictions, ed, by William Wilson, The Doppelganger Press, $8.00

Jumping Out of my Skin preserves poems Frank Boyer wrote half a lifetime ago when his life was unsettled, as the title suggests, but he was in synch with much of America then, and many will understand the cross-country jaunts recalled here: “misty farms, each lit by a single bulb, spin by like asteroids.” Invoking Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he portrays the Southwest (“the Rio Grande/ glimpsed through rust-colored brush”) and a hallucinatory NYC (“subway steps slick with blood”) as he moves toward “a fate we cannot guess.” Romance is redemptive but elusive. At its best: “She touched his hand. Their wounds were healed.” But love can be more ambiguous: she “curls up around my heart/ digs in her claws,/ and makes herself at home.”

Steve Clorfeine, While I Was Dancing, Codhill Press, $18.00. (art by Christoph Zihlmann)

Steve Clorfeine’s While I Was Dancing is based on free-writing texts generated when the author and a partner practiced “moving and writing”: eyes closed, one would move while the other observed; then, both would write. Perhaps the most direct transcription of the process is the first poem in which the dance makes everything possible in a triumph of symbolic gesture: “Victory to fingertips/ (their willingness to fill the air).” The remaining poems range in reference from Buddha to Cracow and an old age home and in style from the lyric to the gnomic: “how we face each other/ how we face ourselves/ begin again.” The book includes a suite of neo-Expressionist etchings by Christoph Zihlmann that nicely complement the poems. May there be more such fruitful juxtapositions of words and visual art!

Fire Exit, Robert Kelly, Black Widow Press, $19.95

Bard professor Robert Kelly, author of sixty-some books, once wrote “Language is astrology indoors,” and Fire Exit, a novel-length group of linked lyrics, reads sometimes like conjuring or incantation. One poem says, “the words come in like crows to wake us,” and awakening may range from gnomic pronouncement to arresting image to exquisite enigma. The flexible three line stanzas are strewn over the pages like flower petals or constellations. Attentive and off-hand graceful, the language is redemptive. In a single poem he moves from subatomic particles to apocatastasis to erotic images to “scissor up the Visa card and rest in peace/death is the opposite of cash/the mortgage that you can pay off never.”

Winter Crows, Barry Sternlieb, Codhill Press, $16.00

The title of this winner of the 2008 Codhill Press Poetry Chapbook Competition might lead readers to think of Ted Hughes or perhaps Van Gogh, but in fact Barry Sternlieb’s crows appear neither as the metamorphosing mythic crow of the British poet nor as ominous birds over a dark wheatfield. Such a painting of crows can be a sublime masterpiece, but for Sternlieb there is revelation beyond art and the senses. He includes a few sweet erotic pieces, but he is attracted as well to the perfection of vacuity. For him the crows, even when “hounded” by wind in one poem, are an emblem of beauty’s survival.

The King, Patricia Wolff, W. W. Norton & Co., $24.95

In The King, a collection of poems on pregnancy and motherhood, Patricia Wolff avoids preconceptions and conventions and provides the reader with on-the-money sketches of maternal moods cast in focused colloquial language that takes, at times, surprising turns. Her chiseled language handles ugliness or anxiety with aplomb. Instead of sentimentality or neo-mythic goddess-worship, the reader finds the startling title “I am on drugs” in which the persona declares her “irresponsibility,” saying the coming child’s life (like our own) will be “a test.” In another piece Wolff says “having had children” is what Buddhists call suffering. That suffering, of course, is nothing other than life.

Hurricane Hymn, H. R. Stoneback, Codhill Press, $20.00.

With the first poem on the flooding of New Orleans, the reader is tossed into the hurricane’s maelstrom which in Stoneback’s rendering includes an unsettling variety of voices. His unashamedly ornate rhetoric runs a broad gamut of tone, rich with music and passion. Prior to joining the professoriat, he collaborated with Jerry Jeff Walker and played with Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, and this background is evident not only in references to Fats Domino and Hank Williams, but in the poet’s highly accessible engagement. One poem’s title links the Fisher King with Delta Recon, and the language throughout runs smoothly from recondite to colloquial.

2. This has not yet been published.

Welcome to the Museum of Cattle, Jane Ormerod, Three Rooms Press: NYC, 2012. $15.00

Jane Ormerod’s new book from Three Rooms Press Welcome to the Museum of Cattle is an effervescent syphon of words, bubbling over with sound collisions, found phrases, imagist fragments, and urgent unanswerable questions. Anyone with a weakness for words and a fondness for seeing them knock into each other, releasing unexpected associations and emotions, would relish this museum. Its exhibits may not strike the visitor as orderly or predictable, but they regularly feature a truly disarming level of energy. The verses spread across the page like an uncontrollable spill, like fireworks with a mind of their own, like a stream of flood-water taking new territory, like a new science just being uncovered.

Language here is incantatory, self-supporting, fueled by some dynamo within to turn (as consciousness does) from one detail to another, leaving the forebrain always a bit behind in attempting to account for the gaps. Though she specializes in the discontinuous, Ormerod also regularly employs repetition to simultaneously familiarize and defamiliarize the phrase in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (and with the same fondness for simple diction and the concrete).

“Lying Sideways, Eyes Closed, Rain,” the opening poem, which might at first seem to be stream-of-consciousness, turns out to be more like bricolage or Snyder’s riprap, with one element placed next to another. One finds little compressed riffs within a line (“That man and her of him ago and long I do I do”), repeated motifs (such as the emphatic “Hup!” and “Joist!”. The diction ranges from children’s story (the melodic sounds of “There is a scarf for little horse. etc.”) to floating portmanteaus like “nosewipe pipesmoke” to questioning (“Where? Whence? Whence?”) Dramas unfold in the turning questions and exclamations, concluding in exhilaration as the author invites the reader to share a “tree frog moment.”

Indeed, jouissance emerges repeatedly like Zephyr in this stormy and ever-changing environment. In “Call Me a Cabernet Sauvignon,” neutral coded instructions (“STOP,” “YIELD,” “WET PAINT” are mixed with images of busy trade and low-key impressions (“Prettyprettypretty”), enthusiastic outbursts (“Fertility of travelers! Ranger Lynne!”), and indeterminate series: “Polytechnicals Moggies in limbo Hopscotching experts.” (For this last, it doesn’t even help to know, as Americans may not, that a moggie is a cat.) The piece moves, though, to offer in the end a magic hope: “Divulge the first color you remember./ Maybe we will then all become happy.”

In “The Second Rebecca” Ormerod evokes Maurier and Hitchcock’s nervousness, the vulnerability of ignorance, and the perverse impulses of the ego seeking a “perfect tree” and a “postcard perfect Monte Carlo” while finding only scattered impressions and questions. But she does lay claim on the gem-like name of supporting player Lumsden Hare which strikes the reader as clumsy and yet perfect, a poem in itself. Settling for such satisfaction, she can conclude by analogy “There is no shame in the faltering surprise of your life.”

The same haven in which lived experience is reclaimed by art is most dramatically proclaimed in “Breathless Around Roadworks,” which declares of our imperfect vision, in spite of a full recognition of the frustration of persona and reader alike, that “This may be the only face of human and irrepressible joy.”

“Or Indeed Any Alcohol” ends on a similar rising note, in a linnet’s song (has the bird wandered here from medieval lyric?) which triggers a rising crescendo of “release,” and the purge of clean-burning alcohol which one might imagine purging doubt.
In “The Young and Innocent Ride Again” identity is barely containable and each alternative seems as glorious as the next.

Are you gold, a drunk, a listener, a wanton bitch?
A crowbat, an orphan? Are you the law?
A large bee on the shoulder of your enemy? A prize hog’s tale?
Are you over a port barrel
That feels like a keg of dynamite?
Will you ride again?

Reading Welcome to the Museum of Cattle, I thought of Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck’s volume of similarly exploded poetry Fantastic Prayers. For its reissue, Huelsenbeck responded to those who took his texts to be random, aimed primarily at the destruction of conventional norms of beauty. He meant, he said, to exercise “constructive will in the world.” This activity of art-making, he went on, “lends wings to the course of the stars despite all the fallen angels.”

Ormerod might shrink from such puffed language, as she does possess the ironic mirror of our belated age. In “Within This Progression, Warmth” she expresses her ambition with modest precision: “This is the few of the something somewhat better/ than the something not so much.” An allusion to an earlier bricoleuse Marianne Moore (“a wealth of fiddle”) precedes a wordlist with extraordinary ebullience (“ . . .dislocated shoulders, jerkins, jerseys/ kilts, mayonnaise, char girls, charming girls . . .”).

And, just as the reader is convinced that all tones have been included in the varied procession of the Museum’s poems, wonder of wonders, at the book’s end, one is surprised once more as a reverent silence descends and the space on the page, like the space beyond the page, is dedicated, as it would be even without these words, to Ultimate Reality: “God/God/God/Welcome to the Museum of Cattle.”

3. This appeared in Home Planet News.

The Potential for Poetry. Eric Greinke. Rockford (Michigan): Presa Press, 2011. $11.95

Theory and ideology are often derided as abstruse, artificial, and altogether too French, but in fact every writer, on the conscious level or beneath, works on the basis of a set of more or less coherent presuppositions, an aesthetic theory. Few artists issue manifestoes any longer, and most pay scant attention to their conceptual foundations, so, while theoretical speculation has flourished in universities in recent decades, it receives virtually no attention in “non-professional” literary circles. Eric Greinke is a rare example of a small press poet who has followed in the tradition of Sydney, Shelley, and Pound by addressing the question of what poetry is all about.

Greinke will be known to those familiar with the small press scene, including readers of HPN. He is the author of something like sixteen books, most recently Wild Strawberries and Traveling Music, including a Selected Poems volume in 2005. What is unusual is his work as a man of letters, publishing reviews, translations (of Rimbaud), and speculation about literature itself. The provocative pieces reprinted in The Potential for Poetry first appeared in little magazines (including this one), and they well deserve this second life in a collection.

Greinke discloses his general orientation clearly. As a Midwestern small press poet who pursued an MSW instead of literary studies in graduate school, he identifies with the avant-garde, the outsiders, and outlaws. Thus, in “The Small Press Movement,” he calls for mutual support rather than competition, an inclusivity he calls in another essay “The New Eclecticism.” The division appears as a class hierarchy in several essays, including his piece on the poet laureate in which he suggests that Donald Hall’s values, traditional and even conservative were perhaps “beaten into his head at Harvard” while Greinke, the rebel, “went to a state college.”

However that may be, for my money, Greinke gets a good deal right. His discussion of the competing claims in recent poetry of an “inner-directed” group -- Bly/ Dickinson/Yeats – and a more “outer-oriented” Berrigan/Whitman/Pound group is useful. I agree with his statement that the poetic text is distinguished by “compressed multi-levels of meaning.”

The title essay “The Potential for Poetry” is ambitious enough to address the purpose of poetry which for Greinke is to “expand consciousness,” through the discovery of “new ideas” in new arrangements of words. Though he does allow, almost parenthetically, for the value of art in simply transmitting received ideas, for him the Romantic goal of novelty is more significant. According to Greinke, the “primary purpose” of poetry is “exposing the unknown, forming alternate ways of perceiving our reality, and advancing human awareness.” He provides a varied list of possible techniques to “make it new,” many of which have been favorite gambits of the avant-garde for the last hundred years: rule-breaking in general, collaborations, multiple personae, and the like.

In search of such new insights, he pursues what he, in another passage, calls the “the ‘Aha’ of revelation or confirmation.” His attitude is unapologetic: “Poetry is subversive to rigid, stagnant ways of being.” “Why should poetry tell us what we already know? Prose already does that.” This and his surrealist assumptions lead him to praise “intuitive,” “sub-conscious,” and “unconscious” thinking which to him is “divergent.” (One might object that archetypes by definition cannot be individual, but rather are universally shared. Are the dreams of which Breton made so much in the first surrealist manifesto likely to admit the individual to a realm of idiosyncratic improvisatory genius or to a timeless collective of wise Jungian ancestors? Or is the difference only in the decoding?)

Greinke accepts literary value as inexplicable: “Taste is personal . . . One loves it and the other hates it. Is it the person or the song?” The question can, however, be productively investigated by using his own insight that literary value is constructed in the consumption of the work. According to his formulation, “A poem doesn’t happen on a page. The reader is the poet.” Thus the interaction can be analyzed in terms of the level of the reader’s competence and the richness of the writer’s exposition.

His test case (which he warns the readers is protected by a level or two of irony) using his own poem “Life” seeks to establish clear bases for the work’s value through traditional explication, but retreats eventually into a less convincing claim that the reader’s evaluation of his poems is dependent on agreement with his theme. “The poem is great, if you also believe that life is great.” He insists on this point: he is entitled, he says, to call the poem great “if I also have the right to see life as great.” So would any poems asserting the “greatness” of life be also “great”? Would a poem claiming life is not great necessarily fail? And he concludes by backing into mystery at the end: “[The poem is great] Or not. It depends on the reader as all poems ultimately do.”

At risk of being identified with the reactionary camp (though I, too, went to state schools, which I regarded then and now as among the nation’s best), I found some of Greinke’s statements careless. For instance, early poetry being oral, there can be no evidence for his assertion that it is the oldest art. It is absurd to say that prose “came as a product of printing.” (What of Herodotus, the Norse sagas, and Chuang Tzu?) He says that “upper crust poets rarely stand the test of time,” (Chaucer? Milton? Will Eliot fade?). It seems to me the idea of the artist as counter-cultural is hardly over two hundred years old. And the man tosses the accusation of fascism far too freely: a poetry Nazi is one who likes accessible verse or a teacher who doesn’t know about prose poetry. And if that weren’t sufficient, he calls these opponents “chicken” as well!
But I bother to quibble only because he has so much that is substantial to say. Every page set me to thinking and reacting. His ideas are clearly bound to his own practice, and yet he is capable of sufficient generalization to aim right at the heart of literature. What are we doing and why? He has come up with his own answers based on a lifetime in the trenches of the art and his testimony is valuable, if not the last word.

In the interest on continuing the exchange of views, and really as a salute to Greinke and an invitation to others to contribute in future, let me set down a few of my own assumptions here. Poetry and other art use the most densely meaningful of codes; subjectivities are all we have of truth, and poetry uses figures of speech and thought to deliver them more precisely than any other verbal technology. Poetry can express an entire worldview (and, for my money, upsetting and affirming expectations are equally important, indeed complementary functions). Among the ends of the aesthetic text as opposed to the non-aesthetic (a more useful distinction than poetry and prose) are pleasure, investigation of the mysteries, exploitation of ambiguity, generation of new ideas and expressions, foregrounding of the irrational, the intuitive, the appetitive, specifically all the subconscious drives to their true place in the total picture of human consciousness.

Can poetry instruct? Only aesthetically, in suggesting that certain stances toward the facts of existence become us better than others. It would take divination to bring one closer to Truth, and the words of poets are the most accurate oracles to which most moderns have access. If art is play with style, surely Greinke is correct when he says “Anything goes . . .The real issue is how well a thing goes.” To evaluate how well it goes, one must see how much happens, and at what psychic depth when people consume the work.

4. This also appeared in Home Planet News.

Eros Descending. Edward Butscher. Amagansett: Amagansett Press, 2010. $15.

Poetry is distinguished from other discourses by its ability to deal with mysteries, things like love, death, and Ultimate Reality. For these topics which can never be “emptied out,” art has been the investigative medium from the earliest times. Who, after all, seeking knowledge of death, would consult a medical book, or look into psychology research to learn about love, or turn to a theologian for final questions? Edward Butscher, in his valedictory collection Eros Descending, addresses these themes (especially the first two) head on with eyes wide open in sinewy, musical, clear-imaged poetry.

These poems are death’s jest-book done anew interlarded with favorite sites from the Kama Sutra. Like the old Greeks he laments “flesh knobbed by cancer,” and finally “the dry turd of my own death” while celebrating art, the flesh, memory, and the ephemeral delights that remain. The old man’s theme of “Dust to Dust” (the title of a piece in the book’s center), in placed among reminiscences of early sexual experiences, visions of “women scudding home in melon/swells and escalating mini skirts,” and a delightful “Ode to Cunnilingus.” Those seeking a cosmic connection may or may not think they have found it when Butscher likens the big bang that started it all to “a sailor’s itch,” a “scab divine,” a back-room fuck that “triggered the first dung-fall/of grace into lesser beauty.”

Butscher, who holds a Ph. D. and wrote significant critical books on Sylvia Plath and Conrad Aiken (but spent most of his career teaching in New York City high schools) brings a high erudition to his play of signifiers. He is willing to include notes and tags from Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and – bless him! – Catullus and Ovid, and his verse is dense and deeply figured. Highly conscious of melody, Butscher is particularly adept at managing assonance and alliteration. With his concentration on the transformations of birth and death and melody, he can sound like Dylan Thomas:

No basket baby ever cried in its crab
Arms or fled with wind-wailing seeds
From their reluctant release

Learned data mixes with memory flashes and bits from old daily newspapers in the author’s notes to his poems which fill, in fact, the last third of the volume. There is some self-indulgence, perhaps, in the divagations of this discursive prose. The author gives permission for the reader to skip the section, but I enjoyed it, not so much as explication of the texts but as a series of new if dependent works. Still, one’s reading of certain poems is enriched by this miscellaneous material, a mélange of depictions of family members, celebrities of the past, evocation of other writers, some of whom, such as Simon Perchik and fellow schoolteacher David Ignatow, the author knew, and a variety of other information. Apart from literary links and anecdotes about Butscher’s aunties, the notes always provide a background wash for the work’s themes: stories of brutal poaching, a Turkish earthquake, or a suicide, for instance, resonating with the theme of thanatoskelly.

Admitting that an erotic reverie may end in farts and the “Rime on the Ancient Lecher” can only be bathetic (“Wetness, wetness everywhere”), love still survives in this volume, though it may manifest in a poem or a dream:

Death’s anecdote
The Tahiti dream
Is the sole dose of god aging allows.

Even the fantasy image alone still evokes reaction from his “half-limp penis as it rises in adolescent glee.” Thus in imagination one may obtain the grace of the dead boy who had (in a poem at any rate) “picked his nose/ and felt pure as a flute.” At that moment “a Grecian urn cradles love’s ashes” and the “sudden green upsurge” can console itself and live on to further generations in the face of mortality.

Poetry in general is the thickest semiotic form —the most meaning per signifier, and Butscher is a master of compression, using poetry’s toolbox to delineate ambiguities and contradictions, including that central play between life and sex and love and the world on the one hand and illness, aging, decay, and death on the other. He ties the dialectic knot tightly.

we cannot comb
old screams from her skull
or escape the adhesive lair
between her scissor thighs


I am enough of an urbanite to be struck as though with a spark of grace when I suddenly see a deer. They enjoy browsing in my ill-trimmed yard, bringing their young, lounging at rest and excreting in such comfort that they depart only reluctantly even when people approach. For years, they considered my garden, with its four-foot fence, unattainable. This year they realized it was not. They seem to be entirely at ease here in town, though it is hunting season out in the countryside.

With the sight of a deer in the yard, the householder understands a bit of the startling vision of St. Eustace: Christ between the stag’s horns, a sight so compelling it was assigned to St. Hubert as well, as though a single saint would be insufficient. St. Giles was sustained by the milk of his deer companion until a king intruded and injured the holy man while aiming at the animal, making Giles a patron of cripples.

Other traditions, too, scent generous sanctity when deer are near. In Islam, the 13th century holy man Geyiklü Baba, “Father Deer.” lived with his deer in the mountain forests of Bursa and gave hind’s milk to a colleague, and in the Þiðrekssaga, Sigurd is nursed by a doe. The common thread is selflessness, the same theme of those Jataka stories of when the Buddha appeared in the form of a deer. In one story he is a glorious deer who saves a man from drowning. The man later betrays the Buddha to a deer-hunting king who turns his weapon the traitor when he finds how the deer was tracked, and the Buddha again intervenes, offering to die in his place. The beginning and end of morality, the Buddha says, is compassion for all creatures. With a touching symmetry, in another narrative the Buddha-deer’s mate intervenes, offering her life for his when a hunter threatens him. [1]

Though all natural objects, studied with sufficient focus, might lead to consideration of Ultimate Reality, deer possess a coy beauty charming enough to attract more than their share of attention. Who can forget the eloquence of the Song of Songs: “My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.” [2] (Surely it would have been likely the female concealing herself behind the mashrabiya; one thinks of medieval love stories such as Palamon and Arcite glimpsing the lovely Emily far below quite unknown to her.) The erotic associations of the deer are also used to describe the woman, as in Proverbs: “Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” [3]

The fact is that deer carry a rich luxurious sensuality. They move with a sinuous liquid smoothness; their silence seems to speak of self-possession; those cervine eyes strike the observer as deep and sensitive. Their purposeful intentionality is buffered by a becoming hesitance, as though they are constantly aware of the provisional character of things. Horace compares the frisson of a fawn’s fear to that of erotic anticipation. [4]

Yet the animal’s vulnerable vitality is susceptible images of death as well as love. I once heard a recording of an African-American funeral service in which the preacher figured the deceased’s soul as a deer in flight. The deer is the vehicle of a sense of the mysterium tremendum. The sensitive soul, panicked and dashing through the woods, is pursued by dogs and hunters. One might expect that such hostile forces would represent the devil or the difficulties of life, but in this sermon they are instead the individual’s doctors, friends, and relatives, all trying to catch and detain the departing soul as it flees toward freedom. The pursuers eventually force the deer to the Mississippi River, the American manifestation of the Jordan, into which it plunges to escape. “All right, when the dogs get there where he was standin’, an’ they look there an’ see that water. An’ finally some of them will plunge in an’ swim out in the river a while barking, but they get to the place where there’s no scent, an’ they turn an come back to the bank. . . he’s got through, he’s got through the line. An’ he’s crossed that river.” Or, in the words of the Heart Sutra, Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond! enlightenment hail! "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!"

1. The first story, known as the Golden Deer or the Ruru Deer, appears in the Pali Canon (as the Ruru Jataka, or Jataka 482) and in the Jatakamala of Arya Sura. The second is “The Two Deer” or Suvannamiga Jataka, Jataka 359.

2. II, 9.

3. V, 19.

4. Odes I, 23.

5. From a classroom handout distributed by the folklorist Harry Oster. I do not know if it was ever published. Long before I studied under him at the University of Iowa in the early 70s, I had heard his beautiful field recordings issued on his Folk Lyric label.

Trollope's Appeal

Traveling, I find myself indulging again in Trollope. Such a habit can last a lifetime. The man was prodigiously prolific, and most of his work occupies a reasonable plateau of quality. (Truth be told, his very best is little better than his worst.) As a popular novelist, his political views, conservative enough to be properly termed reactionary, were yet purged of unpleasantness apart from the wickedness of certain people who are unlike you or me. Decorated then with the mostly amiable eccentricities of us all, and even more with ladies both lovely and virtuous, his work confirmed the assumptions of a mainstream audience of middle and upper class readers. And I venture to say that he remains so reassuring today because of the same utter conviction of the basic rightness of things.

He is not so much a real partisan of the traditional, land-based England of old as he is given to nostalgia for it. A descendent of the eighteenth-century man of sensibility, he relishes a sweet, sad, “noble” feeling, though he is himself bourgeois and his heroes must be “manly,” however tender their relations to women, children, and the degraded poor. In Doctor Thorne, the narrator interjects a passionate claim that the nation is not fundamentally commercial, that trade cannot be a matter for pride or even real excellence (12-13) Rather, he celebrates an explicitly “feudal” system in which the landed aristocracy can be trusted to be sufficiently high-minded to rule in the interests of all. At the same time, he satirizes the de Courcys, recognizing every absurdity of a hereditary gentry.

In Trollope one encounters complete a small, self-contained world, all the more perfect for its provincialism. Things come right in the end, though a weak character or two may be sacrificed to sentiment; the good are blessed and the vicious ruined. All received ideas are accepted and reinforced. A fellow like Doctor Thorne, though he may display excessive pride or obduracy, has a heart of gold, so he must prosper in the end. Part of the Doctor’s worth is that he possesses not only ethical integrity but also a belief in family and descent. Indeed, without this loyalty to a class to which he has only a tenuous claim, he would not seem quite moral in the world of the novel.

Similarly, though Mary is a bastard, a status which has only recently lost its obloquy, she is also related to the house of Ullathorne and thus enabled to be refined and womanly. It is curious, and likely a reason Trollope, who defended psychological rather than plot-driven novels, himself did not care for this book, is that the narrative device of Mary’s inheritance, suggested by his brother, though it is held suspended for six hundred pages, easily guessed by the reader from the start. Mary is so nice; she must win out and marry joyfully in the end.

As few of us, his readers, find ourselves at the top of the social pyramid, Trollope makes good fun of aristocrats. He may support a sort of feudal paternalism, but he satirizes its representatives regularly. The Duke of Omnium is such a very lofty nabob that he is treated at a distance, but the de Courcys are consistent figures of fun. Still, everyone’s worth is realized by their proper playing of a social role.

Trollope’s treatment of his transgressive characters, those whose actions the reader can not applaud, those that go beyond idiosyncrasy, silliness, or a bit too much of a good thing, indicate the dangers of violating social norms.
Scatcherd is the prime example of someone who has wandered from his place in the social structure. This upstart capitalist, having left his proper station, finds himself suffering. The uncouth tradesman, who represents the upward mobility possible in capitalism, is an errant alcoholic; in fact, his ascent to wealth and international stature is rather incredible, given his youth as a mason and a convict and his all-but-uninterrupted drunkenness. His unlikely success is marred not only by his own pathological drinking but also by a no-good son who shares none of his virtues while magnifying his every vice. Scatcherd himself reflects that he would have been more blessed had he remained a stonemason. As it is, he gains immense wealth only to have it revert to the local embarrassed squire who can, of course, make much better use of it. His wife gracefully retires from Boxall Hill, knowing that she never really belonged there.

If the reprehensible tycoon is the book’s primary illustration of the frightful monstrosity of people’s rising above their stations, he has his junior partner in Moffatt. This low-born capitalist acts as a blackguard in jilting Augusta. His advocacy of extending the franchise and admitting Jews to Parliament is portrayed as disreputable vote-pandering as well as making him a “muff.” (207)

In a turn typical of Trollope’s middle-class partisanship for the wealthy, Amelia finds Mortimer Gazebee altogether too low-born for Augusta to consider as a husband, and Augusta herself admits that such an alliance would be “derogatory.” (496). They consider nothing but class in their calculations and pose the frightening question: “If we were to act that way, what would the world come to?” she asks. When Amelia herself violates the class barrier by marrying the affluent attorney, this turn exposes the hypocrisy of the aristocracy without vitiating Amelia’s point. It is, after all, her failure to accept such a marriage. While well-born, she must be less than altogether noble.

At times Trollope’s social ideal seems to veer backward even further than feudalism. Scatcherd’s murder of Henry Thorpe (who had seduced his sister) is all but approved by the narrator and by the authorities. As a more civilized citizen of higher rank (semi-civilized at any rate) Frank takes similar action against Moffat who has jilted his sister (but without having had sex with her) by horse-whipping him outside his club. Moffat, of course, being a bounder, folds without resistance, and the police, though they take Frank into custody, soon realize that he was doing what they consider the right thing. The proper social order, it seems, must be maintained by individuals taking “manly” action, ignoring the police, courts, and laws.

Trollope opposes the modern wholesale, including science and technology. He often directly addresses the presumably bourgeois reader but, at a critical moment, he enlists an ostler as spokesman. This character, a sort of Victorian British Stepin Fetchit, whose quaint deficiencies are evident in his comic dialect and his lameness, remembers most fondly the old “duik” and doochess” and laments the loss of importance of the feudal seat, commenting, “the money did fly in them days!” (200) as though his sort would be much better off were it not for social progress.

In the end it may be Trollope’s conservatism more than his great love for humanity that makes the work warm and comforting even to the more misanthropic. All literature both affirms and questions, reinforces and challenges our received ideas. While some works tend toward the critical side of the continuum, others, in particular popular works like Trollope, tend toward the affirmative, pleasing the reader with the sense that his beliefs are correct and the world is a basically benign place where things run on as best they may. People in Trollope are rarely troubled about their values or decisions. They may be discomfited by circumstance or by narrow-minded antagonists, but they muddle on in a fundamentally lovable manner that makes a narrative world like that of Doctor Thorne a singularly comfortable place to linger.

Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics paperback edition.