Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Infinite Feedback Loop

Lazy Bastardism
was reviewed alongside new books by Glyn Maxwell and Mary Ruefle in the April issue of Poetry magazine. The conversation—held between Michael Lista, Ange Mlinko and Gwyneth Lewis—is utterly satisfying (and at times, for me, blush-inducing). One of the most interesting exchanges occurred over a few lines by Robyn Sarah that Mlinko first encountered in my book. Disappointed that Maxwell doesn't spend more time on the nuts-and-bolts of how metaphors are put together, Mlinko brings up Sarah:
To take as an example the lines I quoted from Robyn Sarah, was 
I really drawn to them because of the versification? 
at the back of the palate
the ghost of a rose
in the core of the carrot. 
Well, I admit, the anapest-ish bounce of those lines has something to do with their memorability, and the palate/carrot rhyme is indispensable, but the real achievement here is the oxymoronic yoking of the rose and the carrot (smell vs. taste; sweet vs. bitter; pretty vs. nutritive; pink vs. orange). Oxymoronic, but surprisingly true — 
I taste that rose now in raw carrots, indelibly. I think Maxwell would wager that the lightning-strike freshness of metaphor arose organically (no pun intended) from the modulation of the vowels and the fatedness of the rhyme. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that versification is a poetic machinery by which you find yourself saying smarter things than you would have otherwise (to paraphrase James Merrill). But I could just as easily posit that Sarah was actually cutting the top off a carrot, saw the radial symmetry of its core, glimpsed (at a lightning stroke) the visual rhyme with a rose, and constructed the musical lines to be the best container for this metaphor.
Michael Lista's reply:
I do think we’re drawn to the Sarah lines in large part because of the versification — it’s itself metaphoric. Yes, the “anapest-ish” bounce is part of it, but so too is the circularity and symmetry of (to use words Maxwell dislikes) the assonance and consonance (at, back, palate/ghost, rose/core, carrot) and that lovely slant rhyme of “palate” and “carrot.” The total effect is to give the aural, synesthetic impression of  both the cross-cut carrot and the spiraled petals of a rose. The metaphor is itself contained within a mnemonic metaphor, which makes forgetting the lines next to impossible. Today both bad free verse and bad formalism disappoint for the same reason: the form has been divorced from its metaphor. In the case of bad free verse, the form feels arbitrarily default, like a font. With bad formalism, it feels willfully decorative, like a font. When poems of each kind succeed, it’s because their containers — poetry
 is the only art form that is its own container — are constructed out of the materials of their contents, in a kind of infinite feedback loop.

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