Friday, September 12, 2008

Back to Babel: Tomlinson's "Poetry and Metamorphosis"

We began talking about metaphor and allegory over on the poetry forum this week, but events overtook us and the thread had to be closed. Before that happened, I had intended to quote from Charles Tomlinson's Clarke Lectures on Poetry and Metamorphosis, but since the thread's no longer with us, I thought Raw Light was as good a place as any to kick off a discussion of metaphor in that context.

Tomlinson's Clark Lectures were published by Cambridge University Press in 1983 - I found a nice First Edition on the secondhand book stall at last year's Aldeburgh Festival on our wild eastern coastline, hence the gratuitous photograph above of a giant, metal Coquille St Jacques - and I'm taking the liberty of quoting quite a substantial amount from his essay 'T.S. Eliot: Meaning and Metamorphosis' in the hope that it will spur people into seeking out a copy of the book for themselves.

Please note, I've also taken the liberty of breaking Tomlinson's rather dense paragraphs here into shorter paragraphs for ease of reading on-screen. You can buy the book itself, in a 2003 edition from Carcanet Press, here.

'I am no longer concerned with metaphors but with metamorphosis.' Thus Georges Braque in Cahiers D'Art. His words might stand as epigraph not only to the modernist phase in painting, fragmenting reality to reconstitute it in non-imitative forms, but also to certain aspects of the collage-poems of Pound and Eliot. Literature will go on to concern itself with metaphors, of course, though what Braque seems to mean by metaphor in painting is that by realistically imitating the appearance of an object, by letting your imitation stand in place of that object, you are denying the creative mind its full plastic power.

By metamorphosis, as distinct from metaphor in Braque's sense, the mind could transform that object into a less predictable, a more variously faceted image. Music, which does not concern itself in any exact sense of the meaning, also, in the hands of Schoenberg, followed the way of fragmentation, building new wholes out of its atonalized constituents, venturing on new sound paths. In both visual and literary art, the notions of fragmentation and metamorphosis travel together, as at the climax of The Waste Land within sight of Babel:

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon
- O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                     Shantih shantih shantih

Do we hear that any longer, or have we lost the Babelic din it makes to the rumble of a thousand commentaries? Five languages, and their differing metrical forms - or bits of them. Read aloud like this, without warning, the famous climax recalls, perhaps, our forgotten first reading, as the mind re-adjusts itelf to take in and differentiate all that sheer noise, and attempts to reconstitute noise as meaning. In the reconstituting, we help to complete a metamorphosis.

Literary art was always like this - to some degree; so that what we are reading now reshapes what we have read up to this point. But Eliot foreshortens the process, speeds it up, involves you in the crisis of it, and the languages are a part of that. From our first reading, scarcely possible to recall, perhaps what still remains in the memory is a sense of pleasant bewilderment, and something of that same sense returns each time we re-hear these lines and re-focus their meaning. If our act of reading is an act of metamorphosing the fragments towards a whole, metamorphosis also belongs in the passage as a directly stated theme:

nel foco che gli affina

- into the fire which refines them. This Dantescan fire changes and purified - in a word, metamorphoses; and the sliver of Dante gives place immediately to another myth of metamorphosis, that of Philomela and Procne:

Quando fiam uti chelidon

- when shall I become like the swallow?

Some interesting things here. In particular there is some useful discussion to be had from this section: 'In the reconstituting, we help to complete a metamorphosis ... what we are reading now reshapes what we have read up to this point.' The act of reading, in other words, is itself about transformation. How does a poet read? In particular, how does a poet read his or her own work, as well as that of other poets? Because it seems to me that Tomlinson is referring here to the mysterious process of poetic influence as much as to the impact on a reader that such deeply layered and complex poetry might have.

Influence is about individual memory, after all, and this idea of retaining a residual memory of our first impressions of such important texts - important for ourselves, that is, not merely in terms of a literary value judgement - has enormous implications for the poet. It means that language and cadence and all the various supportive structures of the poetic line become entangled with one particular moment, one proto-reading, which may or may not even be an accurate or sensitive one, but which may be involuntarily recalled, resurrected, on later readings or brought back to life in our own work with the deliberate twist of a phrase into something hauntingly familiar yet at the same time defiantly different - "So I assumed a double part, and cried / And heard another's voice cry: 'What! are you here?'" - or - in a less self-aware poet's work - the unconscious copying of a style so powerful it has swamped and subsumed the individual voice.

My own eye, falling on 'Quando fiam uti chelido' ('When shall I become as the swallow?) couldn't help but resurrect my early brushes with Italian, pulling the word 'fiamma' out of the ether - 'flame'. Did that particular connection between 'fiam' and 'fiamma' come about because I was thinking of Dante's Inferno, Eliot's purifying fire, or simply because the mind has to worry at these partial words - or what may seem to us like partial words, presented in a language we don't know as fluently as our own - until a possible solution or meaning presents itself?

Whichever it is, this combination of eye, ear and memory amounts to a powerful influence over the individual mind and to the continuing synthesis of such influences - linguistic, poetic, or ranging wider, philosophical, historical, spiritual - until we are nothing but a mass of idea and language-producing nerve-endings constantly reacting to the inferences and echoes of words, words, words. A Babelic existence, in fact, as Tomlinson puts it.

And could that be a definition of the metaphor? Substituting one thing for another, making these tenuous but dynamic connections which may or may not be there in reality, always looking at things aslant rather than head-on, in case we're turned to stone in some foolish attempt to take language too literally ...



Liam Guilar said...

Influence always seems to me to be a critic's game, a linking of texts and possible allusions but perhaps not that useful for the poet. (Pace Bloom's idiotic 'Anxiety of Influence'). Don't the genuine influences operate too deeply to identify?
When you're writing, if the signs are up on the surface, what do you do with them?
But Metaphor on the other hand: I've been intrigued by Jean-Jacques Lecercle's suggestion that metaphor is actually an unavoidable feature of the way language operates. He points out that if a statement is syntactically correct, no matter how bizarre it is semantically, we will read it, or try to read it, as a metaphor. I haven't worked out the implications of this yet, but you can test drive this idea by attempting to complete the statement 'The music is..' so that whatever you come up with cannot be read as a metaphor.

Jane Holland said...

Far from being idiotic, 'The Axiety of Influence' - whilst wildly overwritten and cloyingly self-aware as a text - contains some important truths and pertinent observations on the mindset of the poet in relation to poets past. I've never understood people who can read it - really read it, not just read a chapter or two and dismiss the whole thing out of hand - and not see that.

Tried 'The music is ...' game. It does seem hard not to look back and see every sentence as a potential or covert metaphor. But then, once you're aware that you're not meant to be constructing a metaphor, you start to see them everywhere.

The music is on.
The music is not on.
The music is off.
The music is loud.
The music is playing.
The music is .... etc.

Jane Holland said...

Impressive typo. Axiety, n. A coupling of fear of imminent attack with a sharp instrument by the ghost of a dead poet with the idea that what we have read in the past provides a quantifiable axis around which our poetic drive revolves and which informs how we will write in the future.

Have I just coined a new critical word?

Liam Guilar said...

Now that's a dodgy move...'who can read it - really read it' suggesting that anyone who doesn't agree with your reading of the text hasn't 'read it properly'. I've read it, more than once, 'really'.
Maybe Idiotic is the wrong word...perhaps: 'it's a highly selective reading of literary history as a Freudian family romance/conscious struggle for preeminence which a)requires you to buy into the Freudian background and b) assumes that all writers are somehow struggling with one precursor which they want to 'overthrow' and c) falls into that dreadful 'all poets are identical in practice and intent' trap' while allowing Bloom to set himself up as arbiter of who is a strong poet.' But that would have been very long winded.
Your defintion of Axiety makes much more sense than Bloom's version, which I don't read as the same thing.

The Music is a white rabbit waiting for an ice cube to melt in an empty glass while she contemplates rereading Bloom.

Jane Holland said...

But Liam, if you dismiss Bloom's work as 'idiotic', what on earth were you doing ploughing through it 'more than once', 'really'? Now that's dodgy!

When I find things idiotic, I tend not to read them. But that's just me. Don't like to waste time on decisions already made.

Hope you're enjoying the first ever issue of Horizon Review. Did you see I flagged you up in the Editorial? ;)

Jane Holland said...

To qualify that above, when I find things idiotic, I tend not to read them again.

Otherwise it sounds a little too close to Oscar Wilde's theory of good reviewing.