Monday, November 07, 2005

Swimming In It

You know that paragraph on water from Joyce’s Ulysses?


What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire? . . . Its universality: . . . its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers . . . .”

And so on it flows for one glorious 500-word sentence. What do you call that? That moment in a poem or story where the writer has discovered a vein of ore and decided to mine it for a while, where a musician has discovered a riff and decided to swim in it for a while. It’s interesting because it’s controversial. When Joyce starts in with his list— “torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells”—part of you just wants to tell him to shut up: “OK, I get it! You could have stopped after the first couple words, and you certainly didn’t have to keep going with “geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms . . . .”

Perhaps prose writers are more prone to this sort of indulgence (I think of it as characteristic of Salman Rushdie, for example), but at the same time—isn’t it almost the essence of what is meant by lyrical? Writing becomes lyrical at the moment when speech becomes song, and isn’t that the moment when we discover something worth repeating? Not an idea but a gesture, a rhythm, a pattern:

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid . . .


Isn’t repetition (with variation, of course) the essence of song, whether it’s Walt Whitman or the song of the indigo bunting: fire, fire; where? where? here, here; see it? see it? (Digression: you may think this is a crock, but check out this cool “transcription” of birdsongs by Tomm Lorenzin.)

I’ve been thinking about this because I think I’ve become way too afraid of repeating myself, way too cautious and embarrassed by this sort of self-indulgence. It’s interesting because it demands a lot of a reader. It demands something different from what a poem full of broken syntax or literary allusions demands, but it demands a sort of surrender and trust: No, this poem doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or maybe I think I already know where it’s going and I’ve been there, but . . . maybe I don’t, and maybe the writer doesn’t know either. Maybe I wouldn’t have guessed that “hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides” would end in “faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.”

6 comments:

Beverly said...

Well, there's the maximalist mind and the minimalist mind, writer or reader. I think of certain repetitive writers like Pattianne Rogers whose work sounds good but (for me) gets tedious on the page.

I think I'm more of a minimalist, though I like repetition too (at least a minimal amount of it).

Robert said...

I remember someone saying there are Type A writers who put in too little and Type B writers who put in too much (yes, I'm definitely Type B). I agree about Pattiann Rogers. I think people are overly suspicious, though, of any sense of "finding a groove." Repetition can certainly be tedious, but I think there's a certain kind of "repetition" (that's the wrong word but I don't know what to call it) that allows freedom, like a solid rhythm section that allows a soloist to soar. Hmm, I think I'm repeating myself, but I think the hard part of poetry is that the same words have to be rhythm section and soloist at once.

the machinist said...

When I hit a groove like that when I'm writing, I just go for it. Take it to the end & see what comes, I figure. But I'm the same guy who likes Philip Glass & John Adams, so take it with a grain or eight of salt.

Diane K. Martin said...

While we're alluding to music... i think it works to soar like that, to indulge. But then I think it's great to draw back and keep it quiet. Movements, so to speak.

Eliot is great at this--though he's probably not cool these days.

Lyle Daggett said...

First time I've visited your blog. Interesting post.

I heard poet Etheridge Knight say a couple of times that poetry is spoken song. He also commented once that longer poems need repetition to sustain them. Repetition also helps memory (the old stuff about formulized epithets in Homer, "rosefinger dawn," "gray-eyed Athena," etc.) Repetition can take poetry back closer to its oral beginnings, ultimately full body kinetic beginnings. Deeper into the wellspring.

Whitman of course, and Joyce, also Pablo Neruda, his poems (especially in Canto General) full of the kinds of lists found in Whitman and Joyce. Or, for example, in some passages of the Mahabharata.

Matt said...

I think what is so interesting about miniamilist writing and musical composition is that minature cells of meaning (repeated words or notes) can ultimately and will hopefully resolve themselves in some larger statement about meaning. I think that is probably more true for music, especially the music of Glass or Adams. Steve Reich has a piece I think called Electric Guitar Riff or something like that, which is essentially a very interesting riff just looped and slightly varied over and over again. John Cage, though not neccesarily a minamilist composer, in his piece 4'33 (which is four-minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence)does a sort of minamilist thing in that silence itself can have a sort of minamalist sound about it.