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.

August 9, 2011

To Punctuate or Not

Sometimes, a poet uses punctuation in a poem and sometimes he or she does not.  To examine the possibilities, I've brought together four poems without punctuation written by respected poets.  In this first vividly realized poem by Lucille Clifton, the line seems to follow the philosophy of "the line is a breath."   The line break can be used in a way that gives the reader a chance to breathe between phrases.   

miss rosie
by Lucille Clifton

when i watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when i watch you
in your old man's shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week's grocery
i say
when i watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
i stand up
through your destruction
i stand up

She has used two commas inside two lines, each occurs after the same word, "sitting."  It seems to help Clifton create a parallel structure, although what follows after the word is not exactly parallel. Another poet might be tempted to use commas after the phrases. However, a comma at the end of a line seems to make a harder "end stop." Some poets who do use punctuation avoid a comma at line end because there is already an inherent pause. A line break without a comma adds a level of ambiguity, a slight pause between words that can add extra meanings.   

Other things besides a lack of punctuation are noticeable. Clifton does not capitalize any words except Georgia Rose. She does not capitalize the subject, miss rosie. Neither does she follow the convention of capitalizing the personal pronoun I. One might speculate that she wanted to minimize the "I," downplay the personal narrator in order to indicate that "I" is no more important than "you." The "i" occurs five times however. In such a short poem, five is a lot. One line is just one short syllable:  "or" makes an interesting hinge or pivot point in the poem.

The repeated phrases serve to provide a structure for the narrative:  "...when i watch you..."  "i stand up" clearly communicates respect and honor for the subject of the poem, miss rosie. 

So, why then is Georgia Rose capitalized?  Is a flower, a state flower, more important than the individuals?  The phrase does provide a geographic location for the narrative; the phrase also highlights that the subject's name is rose, miss rosie.  It provides an enduring image of beauty, the ultimate ideal, contrasting with subject's apparent destruction.  Clifton makes very good use of the senses. The smell of too old potato peelings is such a deft use of detail.  The line, " old man's shoes with the little toe cut out" is another good detail. She grounds the poem firmly in the body. 

The lack of punctuation seems to present a fragment, or a breathless utterance.  It might indicate the narrator is placing herself equal to miss rosie; perhaps both the narrator and the subject exist outside convention. Perhaps they don't follow the rules, or live beyond them.   Punctuation or the lack of it can provide meaning in this way.  

In the following poem by Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, the poet also avoids punctuation.  She does however use capitalization as if beginning a new sentence.  Perhaps she meant to signal a new breath or new idea, but not a hard end stop. Not all the lines start with a capitalized word. Niedecker generally used a short line with a tight sound play in the stanzas.   It's a shorter rhythm, almost syncopated.  She was born in 1903 and died in 1970; she was known as an avant garde poet. She was connected to a group of poets called 'objectivists' (the word was first used by Louis Zukovsky). William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth are both considered to be part of this group. 

Paean to Place
Lorine Niedecker

I grew in green
slide and slant
     of shore and shade
through weeds

Maples to swing from

Grew riding the river
    at home-pier
         Shelley could steer
as he read

I was the solitary plover
a pencil
     for a wing-gone
From the secret notes
I must tilt

upon the pressure
execute and adjust
      In us sea-air rhythm
  "We live by the urgent wave
of the verse"
Her poems have beauty and strength in the choice of word and sound.  Alliteration and assonance cause a pleasurable sound play along with rhyme and near rhyme. The rhymes are in words close to each other and not at the ends of phrases.  With her short lines and tight turns, punctuation may have caused the reader to stop in ways she preferred not to have happen. Her stanzas that are similar in size and line breaks. The use of a capitalized letter is an interesting detail, perhaps a technique that helps the reader find the beginning of a new thought.

In the following poem by the current U.S. Poet Laureate, the reader encounters a capitalized beginning of each line with no punctuation. Without punctuation, all line breaks have roughly the same weight or pause.  One continues reading at the same pace throughout the poem.   Without punctuation, the line seems to end in space, without landing.  It is as if broken off in mid-breath.  

For the Anniversary of My Death
W.S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

This poem also has the development of consonant vowel sounds that make for a pleasing experience. The poem arrests the reader with its speculation; one always marks the anniversary of one's birth, but the opposite of that, the anniversary of one's death, exists unbeknownst to us. It is a bare shadow that Merwin finds and names.  
In the following poem by e.e. cummings, there is no punctuation except for the apostrophe mark and a hyphen. The hyphen is not used in a standard way.  Here, he hyphenates words not usually hyphenated.

Buffalo Bill's
e.e. cummings

Buffalo Bill 's
            who used to
            ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
                                    and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

He does use conventional capitalization for names but not for the personal pronoun I.    e.e. cummings is known for his creative arrangements of the words, spacing or not spacing, stringing together or breaking words apart on a line or across lines. Many poets use the lines and spaces as a form of musical score; the reader can run the words together, read words fast, and then have a long pause for the next line, "Jesus' is far indented, as if hung on the end of the line before it. cummings also avoids using the question mark at the end.  I think this adds an ambiguity.  It begins as a question, but perhaps offers an acerbic comment instead.   By avoiding the punctuation mark, the poet is able to create more ambiguity and therefore more possible meanings. 

Each of these poems would be much different with conventional punctuation. Each poet had internal consistency with his or her approach.  Each used other unusual methods with capitalization or no capitalization; they used spacing in a way that also would affect the breath.

When writing or reading poems, consider the uses that punctuation has. Many poets use punctuation just as it is used in conventional sentences.  Done this way, the writer can guide the reader toward meaning and rhythm.  If the writer chooses not to punctuate, then I think it's important to have or to develop an internal consistency.  Without punctuation, one must consider line breaks and other use of white space in the development of structure and rhythm.

It does seem that an unpunctuated poem is closer to a fragment. In my own poems, a series of unpunctuated poems serve as a fragments of a longer arc that usually is marked off in sections. Initially I used it because some poems arrived in dreams, as a stanza.  I wrote them down just 'as is.'  Later, I began other series that seemed to work better without the conventional stops of punctuation.  This added a breathlessness or a speed to the poem that would not exist otherwise. I would never swear off punctuation; like other elements in poetry, it's best to use or not use this element deliberately.