the poem as artefact that bears traces of its own making
January 24, 2013 § 4 Comments
It is also possible to think of a poem as a material artefact, whether constructed out of sound, or the letters of the alphabet, which function as a fossilized notation of sound. Jane Hirshfield’s observation on the experience of speaking or reading a poem is again useful:
“Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhythms present at that poem’s conception. We breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer’s physical experience comes into us when we read her poem.” 
She reminds us that words have a physical origin, anchored in the body of the poet. Nor is it incompatible to think of a poem as both material artefact and living flesh; the poem as material artefact is a projection of the human being (the human body) into the world—a projection of sentience, moral perception, emotion, idea—in a form which can now be shared with others, and which can last through time, working on the world as other tools of our material culture do—which then, as Marx and Scarry note, rework our own sentience, our own selves.
Hirshfield also reminds us of this material nature of the poem—the poem as artefact—when she observes how the effect of time alters our perception of it. Strangeness in the language of a poem as it ages through time functions as a kind of patina for future readers, a historical ‘signature’:
“When an original grows old, its dated words and syntax serve as a kind of watermark. Age in itself gives substance—what has lasted becomes a thing worth keeping. An older poem’s increasing strangeness of language is part of its beauty, in the same way that the cracks and darkening of an old painting become part of its luminosity in the viewer’s mind: they enter not only the physical painting, but our vision of it as well.” 
To describe a poem as we might a painting helps us to remember that, however ephemeral or immaterial a poem may seem, it is still a physical thing that can work on the world as much as a telescope or a microscope, tools which help to extend our range of sight. As an object which can hold and share a human’s perceptions and sensations with others, even those who live far in the future, the poem might be described as analogous to a container or vessel—it carries some essence or knowledge of the poet, knowledge which was once restricted to the borders of the poet’s body, but can now be shared.
Another analogy I have suggested is that of a woven cloth, composed of many disparate threads. I am sympathetic to this comparison because of the work I did with “Karyotype.” Some of the poems in the sequence describe the cloth worn by the people of the Tarim Basin, and use the language of woven cloth—warp, weft, plain weave, selvedge—a vocabulary which reminds us of the complex work of weaving, a skill that was once essential to know in order to provide clothing, blankets, and other household textiles for your family, but is now almost a forgotten skill due to the industrialization of the process. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out, we are hardly even aware of the fact that most of our clothing is still made from woven cloth, and that the ancient patterns can still be seen in the plain weave of our cotton shirts, the twill of our jeans.
The poem-as-woven-cloth analogy also reminds us of the work and care that goes into making a poem. It reminds us that a poem bears the marks of the labour that went into its making. Just as a piece of cloth can be read for clues as to how it was made (the width of cloth produced by a portable loom; the kind of selvedges; patterns such as twill or plaid or plain weave; the smooth or rough transition from one colour or pattern to the next), so does a poem (the metre as the warp across which the rhythm is weft; choice of line endings in tension with syntax; formal and aural repetitions; transitions from one stanza to the next, from octave to sestet, and so on); these clues also tell us something of the skill of the maker.
I find it very difficult, excruciating, in truth, to look at my poems for this reason—I see the awkward transitions, the slips, the failures of technique, raw places where I could have done better. A poem is never finished; there is always more work to do.
Take for example ‘Karyotype XVI’:
Running the length of the skinny
little body, the narrow cloth
is wrapped, the tan warp tucked across
her like the threads of a cocoon,
as she is waiting to emerge
from her long sleep. Moon-
face in her pod of softest brown
stitched closed with carved bone pins,
the mottled wasp-nest skull
and tapered form
so carefully framed with selvedges
and checks, as if a young woman
made this as she learned to weave,
a sampler gangly as the child
she had to wrap so carefully and leave
in the cold ground, her child.
[This poem first appeared in Event Magazine;
my thanks to the editors.]
I find it almost unbearable to read for the technical errors I see shot through it. I worry about the line breaks in the first stanza, and the way the sentence breaks across the first stanza into the second. Why end the first line on “skinny”? Why end the third line on “tucked across” and place “her” at the beginning of the fourth line? It could easily go at the end of the third line as a downbeat, an extra syllable resulting in a feminine ending, still iambic in sound. I suppose it could be argued the break between the first and second stanzas enacts the warp stretched across a space from life to death, to accommodate the body.
The rhyme throughout is very slant (I was simply aiming for two lines in each stanza to rhyme, at least in part): cloth/across, brown/pins, form/women. And as Mary Kinzie has noted in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, end rhymes are harder to hear if the lines don’t end on the phrase or clause or the close of a sentence, as with enjambed lines the ear is already skipping ahead to the next line to complete the syntactical construction. I’m not sure if I like the repetition of the phrase “so carefully,” one to refer to the work done on the sampler/shroud, the second to the wrapping of the child’s body in this piece of cloth. The lines don’t scan very smoothly—they are also awkward, although it improves a little towards the end.
There are elements I like as well: the way the penultimate line breaks off at “leave,”—again, the unbearable space between life and death—and the final line resumes after crossing this space, “in the cold ground, her child,” so that “the child” is separated from the mother, as the line orphans her. I like that I attempted to describe the child and her shroud accurately: tan warp, stitched closed with carved bone pins, the mottled wasp-nest skull; the language of weaving and making is merged with natural forms made by insects (cocoon, wasp-nest). So despite the technical errors, I still feel protective towards this ungainly poem, as if it enacts the woven sampler with its awkward transitions that show the inexperience of the maker. The poem seems to me now unwittingly like the cloth sampler it tries to describe.
‘Karyotype XVI’ is based on a photograph and description of the Qäwrighul child in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Mummies of Ürümchi. The photograph shows a child of about eight years old who was wrapped in a shroud of cloth which Wayland Barber reads as a ‘sampler’ because of the evidence she sees in the traces of its making, traces that show the weaver was inexperienced: uneven colour zones, haphazard transitions, “but that is how one learns.” Wayland Barber speculates that perhaps the young woman who wove the cloth eventually used it—perhaps now a piece of scrap cloth—to wrap her child in before placing her in the grave.
I tried to write this poem a second time, outside of the Karyotype sequence. I decided for the second attempt to use blank verse, and to try to describe the sampler in more detail—the oatmeal and tea-coloured patches, Barber’s technical analysis of the work. This time I was more conscious of the comparisons that could be drawn between the inexperienced work of the woven cloth, and the writing of the poem as artefact—as made object that bears traces of its own making.
 Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.7-8.
 Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.67.
 Ursual K. Leguin explores this analogy as it relates to narrative fiction in her essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
“A poem is never finished; there is always more work to do.” If it’s a poem, an actual poem, of course it’s finished. It’s not a poem until it is finished, when it cannot be altered without becoming less. Otherwise, it’s just an experiment, not a poem. After it is finished, it always was as it is. My notion, anyway.
To each poet her own — I’m sure many poets would agree with you; but many wouldn’t. I think of Spender, who was always revising older poems over the years.
I didn’t meant to imply that would be no poetry. You’ve reminded me of Spender’s ruddy face when he was a guest lecturer (?) at Northwestern University, but I cannot recall the year – it was a long time ago. Thank you, by the way, for your reply. Experiments have a place with the genuine, too. I spend too many hours making random use of Google, but in this case, thank you, also, for introducing me via your blog to Miklós Radnóti.
My pleasure — I wish I could have seen Spender, he’s one of my favourites, as is Radnoti. Cheers.