Poet Tim Upperton argues against order as a crucial element in successful poetry.
Imagine some chickens in a yard. Each morning their owner appears, banging the side of a tin bucket full of grain, and the chickens crowd around to be fed. One day, the owner bangs the side of the bucket, and the chickens come running as usual, but, instead of giving food, the owner seizes one chicken by the leg, swings it on to a wooden block, picks up an axe, and cuts off the chicken’s head. In its last seconds of life, as the axe descends, the chicken reflects bitterly that the sense of order that suffused its short life was an illusion: the owner is not a benevolent being; nor is the banging of the tin bucket inevitably followed by falling grain. One thing happens, and then another thing happens, but a sequence does not necessarily imply consequence. The world does not cohere; the apparent pattern fractures; things fall apart.
My kitchen has a concrete tile floor. Every other day, it seems, as I put away a plate or rinse a wineglass, it will slip (I say slip, but it is more like leap) from my hand and smash to pieces. As I look glumly at the shards on the floor, it occurs to me, once again, that the plate or glass has realized its true nature. Things are most themselves when they are broken and dispersed.
In The Well Wrought Urn (1947), the literary critic Cleanth Brooks developed his argument that the language of poetry is essentially the language of paradox, and that successful poems enact the resolution or harmonization of that paradox. It’s as if a film of my kitchen mishap were played backwards, and the shattered pieces rose from the floor and reassembled themselves into the single, unified object in my hand. Brooks’s influential book, first published in 1947, was a foundational text of New Criticism, a school that is out of fashion now, pushed aside by Structuralism and then Poststructuralism. Contemporary language and literary theory aren’t so keen on unity, autonomy, or coherence, but this isn’t often reflected in the language of reviews in mainstream journals. In a generally positive review of some recent poetry collectionsin this quarterly (NZB, Winter 2013), Nadine France complains that Ashleigh Young’s collection, Magnificent Moon, “lacks cohesion and some themes suffer from a lack of development”; that it “is filled with strong poems which don’t always form a cohesive argument.” This lack of cohesiveness is implicitly contrasted with the poems in Kerrin Sharpe’s Three Days and a Wishing Well, which “may not tell an obvious narrative, and they cannot be forced into a neat box, but it doesn’t mean that narrative, theme or that elusive meaning is missing.” That is, Sharpe’s poems may appear to lack narrative and therefore meaning, but a more careful reading will find these are reassuringly present.
This seems to me an aesthetic distinction, a preference for order over disorder, for Apollo over Dionysus, for Allen Curnow, say, over James K Baxter. But, sometimes, we have intimations that order, the cohesive narrative we make of our lives, is only apparent, a necessary fiction masking chaos. Sometimes, there is a tearing of the fabric, and we catch a glimpse of something beautiful and terrible, whatever it was that made Emily Dickinson feel that the top of her head had been blown off – and this is poetry, though not a poetry of the well-wrought urn kind.
Two touchstones of the Dionysian in poetry, for me, come from two unlikely sources, both Christian conservatives: T S Eliot and W H Auden. In Prufrock’s plaintive cry, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, Eliot’s persona seems to identify himself with a crab. A crab scuttles sideways, and thus provides an excellent metaphor for Prufrock’s inability to move forward decisively: so far, so cohesive. But Prufrock isn’t identifying himself with a crab – he’s identifying himself with “a pair of ragged claws”, and this disembodied, eerie image seems to bypass reason and engage directly with what Freud called Das Unheimliche, the uncanny – the familiar made strange, even terrifying. This isn’t a case of synecdoche, where a part signifies the whole: there is no whole. The crab, like my broken crockery, has, through dismemberment and dispersal, become more truly itself.
The Auden example is more mysterious than terrifying, but it, too, is unheimlich. It comes in the final stanza of his poem “The Fall of Rome”:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
Until this point, Auden’s poem has been located in the human, social realm of a bureaucracy administering the business of empire: the poem, like the world it describes, coheres. But the first two words of this stanza signal a change, a sudden recognition of something larger, wilder, beyond the reaches of civilisation. Of course, in elaborating the image in this stanza, I am suggesting it coheres with the rest of the poem, after all – perhaps as a kind of corrective to human self-aggrandising tendencies, like Shelley’s rebuke to Ozymandias. But that doesn’t begin to explain its power. Nothing does. Why the reindeer, the golden moss? The image achieves its uncanny effect “silently and very fast”, flashing on the mind’s eye.
The cohesiveness of narrative is reassuring. That which is unheimlich is not: its effect is vertiginous and disorienting, like that of a missing stair. We like to think our lives cohere, and that we ourselves cohere: that there are root causes of our behaviour, and of the events that make up our lives. To the bare elements of story, we add plot: in E M Forster’s famous formulation, “The king died and then the queen died” becomes “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” But cohesiveness takes other forms than narrative. There is cohesiveness in the repetitions of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and metre; there is cohesiveness in patterns of imagery, syntax, and visual presentation; there is cohesiveness of tone and mood; there is the cohesiveness of received forms, such as the sonnet, the sestina or the villanelle. And some of these kinds of cohesiveness are inimical to narrative. Try telling a story in a villanelle: it’s like wading through treacle. The first and the third lines alternate as the refrain in every subsequent three-line stanza, and provide the poem’s closing couplet, thwarting any forward movement. Ashleigh Young’s “Interrogative Villanelle” is composed entirely of questions that bear no relation to each other: “What is it like, when eating a food item, to unexpectedly bite into a finger? / What’s it like to be a compulsive liar?” Each question is a plea for information, but cumulatively these questions voice a diffuse social anxiety that no answer can relieve.
To declare a partial, rough-and-ready aesthetic of my own: when the narrative in a poem breaks down or is rejected or abandoned, that is precisely when the poem becomes most interesting. I like poems that advertise their narrative failures, that throw their hands up, that wilfully digress. I would argue with France’s assessment of Young’s poems – there are in fact themes explored and developed in individual poems and in the collection as a whole, such as the curious bonds of family and friendship, and the way memory provides us with stories about ourselves. Yet I know what France means. There is a restlessness about the poems, a discursive quality, a refusal to stick to the point, an opening out rather than a closing in. “Abandoned Poem Titled ‘Magnificent Moon’ ” is another of Young’s poems that, considered as narrative, is unsatisfactory. Is the poem we are reading the one that was abandoned – a fragment, like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”? Or is this a poem about an abandoned poem? Does the fact that the abandoned poem provides the title for the book suggest that the entire collection is, in effect, an abandoned poem, a failed enterprise from which the poet walked away? What does it mean to say that a poem is “abandoned”, yet at the same time give it a starring role? Is this an explicit acknowledgement of Paul Valéry’s declaration about all poetry-making – that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned”?
Epics, drama, ballads, anecdotal poems: there is a lot of poetry that provides cohesive narratives. There is also poetry that is cohesive without the aid of narrative. And there is poetry that suggests to us that cohesiveness is an illusion – that, as Yeats wrote, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Narrative offers a chain of reasoning that appeals to our sense of order, and helps us make sense of the world. But we do not need an axe poised above our heads to know that there is more than one way of apprehending and representing that world.