Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Poems for October 29

A fire drill cut short our discussion of poems for October 22.
So... trying again.
The Courtesy of the Blind -- by Wislawa Szymborska
The Short Answer –John Ashbery
excerpt from an interview with John Ashbery that tells about Frank O’Hara and Auden
Why I am not a Painter – Frank O’Hara
5 i poems

We read again "The Courtesy of the Blind" and the discussion embraced both the poem, references to blindness ranging from Corinthians "for now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face..." and Acts, "and immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales", Amazing grace to general considerations about "the blind".
As ever, it is helpful to sort through subjective associations by close examination of the poem. Is the tone the same in the title and the penultimate stanza where it is repeated? Is there a note of irony, perhaps a comment not about the blind, but a comment about a poet who is reading to a public of blind people, and suddenly aware
of images provided in poetry -- two careful quatrains, and then an enumeration of details he'd like to skip -- but does not in two stanzas of five, much longer lines.
We don't have the original Polish, but it would be probable that the last two stanzas would resonate in the original as they do in English -- the penultimate stanza is formal as opposed to conversational (one wouldn't say" hey, great is the courtesy of the blind" and in the final stanza, we are left with the mystery of the "unseen autograph". Each participant brought a different angle which reflected a slant sense of autobiography on how each individual understood the poem --was it presumption on the part of the speaker that "blind people don't get what they can't know by sight", or enthusiastic hyperbole, or perhaps a way of looking at poetry, which is a way to bring music to language when read out loud, a way to bring an emotional connection which is beyond the "meaning" or content of images.

Just as the line "the naked stranger standing in the half-shut door" in the Szymborska poem elicited some laughter, so did many lines in the Ashbery poem for instance:
Because if it's boring //
in a different way, that'll be interesting too.
That's what I say.

In both cases, I wonder if the source of the laughter was more like having a sneak, surprise view that allows the poem to mirror a part of ourselves we might not have considered recently. Last week, after reading the Ashbery, Marcie offered the comparison of walking through a cocktail party and overhearing pieces of conversation
which gives a sense of disjointed and out of context flow. It reminded Sandra of dealing with people stricken by Alzheimers. Whether surrealistic tomfoolery, or a dream viewing reality (or it that our reality IS the dream?) there were spaces in the poem where people could hang on to a sense of understanding something. Marcie called on the quote from the Ashbery interview in the Paris Review, "I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing. To shock the reader is something else again. That has to be handled with great care if you're not going to alienate and hurt him".
Ashbery is mindful of how he plays with us. The big question, "how do you know what is" brought forth many fine points from physicists-- "why does it appear that there is something..." "objects are just cast from other ends of the universe, the shadow is the reality"; Don referred to Freeman Dyson "What can you really know" NY Rev of
Books (11/8/12) p.18 -- a review of Jim Holt's "Why does the world
exist?: an existential detective story." John suggested that the first sentence is the short answer to the question... what is consciousness.
Perhaps to get to the "point" of the short answer, one needs to write a poem like this, which will allow meanings to mushroom, until the lightbulb goes off.

The next poem by O'Hara, "why I am not a painter" brought up a multitude of examples from current art and literature. Emily brought up the example from a book she is reading, and sharing a quote on how the author wrote with an artist, who said -- that's it! It is not about having a fixed idea of what you are about to create,
but shaping words and paint as they arrive. O'Hara compares this process in the poem. John brought up rage as one of the building blocks of art, to get beyond a varnished presentation of something presentable... yet aside from "terrible oranges..." the poem had little rage. Martin brought up the distinction between rage and the energy and motivation that comes with it. The poem is an art of assertion... work responds to the idea... Carmin cited the experimental GeVa where the work in progress eliminated one character. Just as the painting denied the essence of Sardines (which Mary said, she at that point had a real hankering for!)by using just giant letters... Martin: all humans have rage... not the motivation... energy... Emily ( I believe) brought up the first person who told us NO.
More on O'Hara triggers: NY School film: Painters Painting. Tom Wolfe: The Painted Word. New Art City... Untitled (movie)

We ended by reading the 5 i poems. And what if they weren't called "i poems" --
would that change how we read them? I asked each person to pick their favorite.

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