August 12, 2011

The Architecture of Poetry

The Architecture of Poetry

The Gallery by Tomas Tranströmer
Miniature by Yannis Ritsos

I'm fascinated by architecture and its link with poetry.  Architecture offers to poetry the principles of design. One of my favorite poems is "The Gallery" by Tomas Tranströmer.  He was a Norwegian poet of great skill. This poem combines a deep interior world with a wide exterior.  It is one of the best examples of poetry and architecture that I have seen.  The poem is not about architecture; rather the design of the poem uses the architecture of its location as a foundation.  Also the poem "Miniature" by Yannis Ritsos is framed by a room where two people are having tea.   Likewise, this poem uses the pattern language of a tea room, the ritual of making tea, to express an inexpressible good-bye.

I've found wonderful books about architecture that I believe have deep links to poetry: Christopher Alexander, Vol I: The Timeless Way and Volume II: A Pattern Language.  Alexander focuses on living patterns as a way to think about design; he names these patterns with basic, almost archetypal, images:  'the gate', 'the way,' 'entrances & exits,' and 'spirit places.'  He examines the features of various buildings:  the honeymoon cottage, teenager's cottage, and the like.  Recognizing the human needs of various phases of life, he identifies ways that buildings can help people.  Therefore, a teenager's cottage needs to be close by, but have more privacy.  A bench near the front entrance of a building will provide the elderly a place to rest and watch others in the community.  It's architecture that evolves from the consideration of human needs. These words, which he uses as a language, encourages one to think of a larger patterns. Basically, he urges builders to consider making buildings that are organic, that reflect the life inside, and contain living patterns.  

I like to adapt his ideas to poetry. Writers would also benefit from the consideration of a pattern language. Entrances and exits, for instance, can help us think about how a poem begins or ends.  There are many ways to create an entrance; considering the larger scheme helps us to make the choice. Not only that, contemplating the rituals or patterns of life is useful. The patterns of life, reflected in a poem, will enhance the structure of the poem and the life of both reader and writer.  

Alexander writes in The Timeless Way:  "It is a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it can not be attained, but it will happen of its own accord, if we will only let it." This process is not one of forcing a pattern, but of watching the unfolding of a natural one.  It is not about control, but it is about attentiveness.

Tomas Tranströmer's poem "The Gallery" is an example of a poem with beautiful architecture. The title The Gallery is figurative. The narrator in the poem describes a sleepless night in a motel, but each of the images that emerge from the wall are like portraits in a gallery; the long poem is both surreal and deeply moving. Translated by Robert Bly, this is the ending of the poem:

I stayed overnight at the sleepwalker's motel.
Many faces here are desperate
others smoothed out
after the pilgrim's walk through oblivion.

They breathe vanish struggle back again,
They look past me.
They all want to reach the icon of justice.

It happens rarely
that one of us really sees the other:

a person shows himself for an instant
as in a photograph but clearer
and in the background
something that is bigger than this shadow.

He's standing full-length before a mountain.
It's more a snail's shell than a mountain.
It's more a house than a snail's shell.
It's not a house but has many rooms.
It's indistinct but overwhelming.
He grows out of it, it out of him.
It's his life, it's his labyrinth."

The gallery is a word that reflects a pattern language.  This word choice gives us an immediate understanding of a night that is spent viewing portrait after portrait of haunting images. Tranströmer uses the architecture of the motel and gallery to keep the poem structured and focused.  And like the shifting portraits that emerge from the motel wall, the image of the narrator shifts with each line in the last stanza. 

Another book that provides an interesting insights is The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.  A sampling from the Table of Contents reveals these phrases:  House and Universe, Nests, Shells, Intimate Immensity, Miniatures. The phrase 'intimate immensity' perfectly describes a good poem like the one by Tranströmer. It is specific and detailed, and yet it offers an immensity.

Reading this list in the table of contents brings to mind another beautiful poem, "Miniature" by Greek poet Yannis Ritsos.


The woman stood up in front of the table. Her sad hands
begin to cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
made for a child's fairy tale. The young officer sitting opposite
is buried in the old armchair. He doesn't look at her.
He lights up his cigarette. His hand holding the match trembles,
throwing light on his tender chin and the teacup's handle. The clock
holds its heartbeat for a moment. Something has been postponed.
The moment has gone. It's too late now. Let's drink our tea.
Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of carriage?
To pass by and go away? And only this carriage to remain,
with its little yellow wheels of lemon
parked for so many years on a side street with unlit lamps,
and then a small song, a little mist, and then nothing?

(trans. Edmund Keeley)

This poem is contained by the tableau in this room, yet it contains an intimate immensity.
Poetry is a practice of architecture.  Muriel Rukeyser called the setting of a poem as its the theater. A poet might consider what type of dwelling a particular poem provides:  a kitchen/dining space, a gallery, a spirit house, a honeymoon place, or a tomb, for instance. Each has different characteristics and expresses a deep human need. The best form or design for the poem is the one that best facilitates the living pattern. In the revision, a poet might discover ways to enhance the living patterns inherent to the work. Repetition, variation, and music offer patterns to the poet. The goal is not to create complexity; the best work creates simplicity.

Alexander says, "The process of unfolding goes step by step, one pattern at a time. Each step brings just one pattern to life; and the intensity of the results depends on the intensity of each individual step."    

The poems by Tranströmer and Ritsos have the intensity of which Alexander speaks and the intimate immensity articulated by Bachelard.  They both are very intimate revealed experiences that are specific to time and place. They are small scale, and the architecture that informs this essay is also small scale. The following link features photographs and a story of a couple who live in a 12x12 cabin, off the grid. It is an example of the poetics of space and attentiveness. And, on the shelves of their tiny home is a lot of poetry.

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