Little Triggers

Little Triggers

When Loren gestured at William Carlos Williams’ famous line from Paterson “No ideas but in things” I tore up my apartment looking for my copy. I never finished it. I prefer long poems to short ones, and narrative poems to abstract ones. But I easily get lost in passages, projecting them onto myself. Like trying on clothes, often one aspect will fit nicely and other’s don’t. But I couldn’t find it— I had to order another copy. I think I walked off and left it somewhere, stunned encountering lines like this:

                        We sit and talk,
quietly, with long lapses of silence
and I am aware of the stream
which has no language, coursing
beneath the quiet heaven of
your eyes

That’s one of the passages I blogged from my encounter with it. I remember talking to the poet Ralph Burns about Paterson. Ralph said: “Williams takes it back later in the poem you know— the bit about ‘no ideas but in things.’” I didn’t get far enough into the book to find out. I keep thinking that there are no ideas, except in people.

It is both disorienting and invigorating to see others expand bits of my reflections. and turn them into more fully developed ideas. Scott’s thoughts on studying for comprehensive exams reminded me of a comment a professor made to me near the end of my first year in the MA program: “You sound like you’re studying for comps!” I suppose I’ve been like that for a long time. I’m rather intense. Dorothea’s reflections on intense people and graduate school hit close. So did Jonathon’s admission that he’s very intense. Like Jonathon said, “It’s easy to recognize the voice of experience.”

Anyone who plays with language long enough knows that it easily becomes a facade to hide behind. In flamewars past, on listserves, I’ve been accused of hiding behind other people’s words. I cite poets and writers frequently because the more clearly express ideas I’m feeling. And I seek them out because I want to deal with myself and the struggle I can only face through language, having no one beside me to get lost in the stream with. Lately I’ve been sucked into a passage from Browning’s Sordello, and been thinking of making a list like Scott’s.

I take these things personally; it’s the only way I can understand them. I find it hard to read excerpts, and I find it hard to read only the isolated “great works” by authors. I like to know the arc of the story, and what happened to them along the way. No matter how hard I intellectualize it, the author is never dead to me. I can’t help but wonder what happened to Sordello. After his initial success in a poetry contest,

He left imagining, to try the stuff
That held the imagined thing. and, let it writhe
Never so fiercely, scarce allowed a tithe
To reach the light— his Language. How he sought
That cause, conceived a cure, and slow re-wrought
That Language,— welding words into the crude
Mass from the new language around him, till a rude
Armour was hammered out, in time to be
Approved beyond the Roman panoply
Melted to make it,— boots not. (II, 570-578)

Language with a capitol “L”— and a possessive “his” undercut swiftly in the final line. What a masterful way of saying it. Language as a cure, made by melting down the language all around him forms an armor that provides everything but the boots. Without boots, it’s a bit difficult to walk. In the subsequent lines, the wrought language fails:

                                                                This obtained
With some ado, no obstacle remained
To using it; accordingly he took
An action with its actors; quite forsook
Himself to live in each, returned anon
With the result— a creature, and, by one
And one, proceeded leisurely to equip
Its limbs in harness of his workmanship.
“Accomplished! Listen, Mantuans!” Fond essay!
Piece after piece that armour broke away,
Because perceptions whole, like that he sought
To clothe, reject so pure a work of thought
As language: thought may take perception’s place
But hardly coexist in any case (II, 578-592)

Thought is something different than perception. Mileage may vary, dependent on the perceived identification with the author. The reality is, the thoughts don’t coexist. Thought is always separate, and words are an ill-fitted suit for the enterprise. But it’s what we have to draw from. I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of heroes, and how hungry we are to find them, reading Carlyle and others on the subject. Plato’s discussion of the etymology of hero in Cratylus haunts me.

That’s a big reflection to write. Sordello seems to be the interface between Browning’s idolatry of Shelley and his mature voice. I feel that humans are impelled toward love, and that finding heroes is one way that this is manifest. But to raise others above yourself is dangerous; it can stifle as much as it inspires. The armour may not have any boots. How do you avoid crossing the border between love and idolatry? After all, it’s the people we long for, not just the thoughts.

And people are always imperfect and broken.