Showing Vs. Telling, Part III

Showing vs. Telling:
Toward a Rhetoric of the Page

Part 3 of 3
by Tim Hunt

“The page might be said to function reflexively: the poet interacts with the page in fashioning an aesthetic object; the reader in turn re-enacts this interaction with the page by regarding the aesthetic object in the proper way (much as one might regard a painting).”


Robinson Jeffers’ “Credo” (probably written late 1926) is a quite different kind of poem than “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “To a Solitary Disciple.”  It is not a moment of seeing distilled as writing that the reader is to experience as if directly even while savoring poem’s mediation (as if that mediation could, that is, both celebrate itself and erase itself if the poem is written with sufficient art, and as if such art would, then, in itself authenticate both the seeing and the constructed object of the poem).  Instead, “Credo” is a reflection on what the speaker has seen and how he has come to think about that seeing.  It is a series of comments, and it is openly, unapologetically, discursive.  In this poem we do not relate directly to what the poet has seen; we relate to it through the mediation of a speaker who both represents and interprets perceptions that are prior to and outside the poem itself.  “Credo” is, also, and in part for these reasons, a poem that needs to be approached as an act of speaking.  Reading it is more a matter of hearing the writing from the page than seeing the writing on the page:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it.  I humbler have found in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality.  The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.[1]

Unlike Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Jeffers in “Credo” does not attempt to inscribe images as if directly onto the page.  Instead, the “I” who speaks the poem talks about them; he refers to the reality of things (“The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality”), and this “I” mediates the reader’s relationship to the real in way that is finally less immediate and direct than the way the writing “eye” mediates the reader’s relationship to the faces as petals in “In a Station of the Metro” or the scene of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The way “Credo” presents a speaker talking about reality rather than the poem presenting itself as offering reality (or as being reality) would be a weakness if “Credo” were an attempt at an imagist lyric.  But to read the poem as failed Pound (or failed Williams or even failed Stevens) is to miss the nature and function of its discursiveness.  As a credo, “Credo” is both a definition of belief and a public statement of belief.  This occasion and the way “Credo” functions as composed speech (speech recorded in writing and shaped for re-enactment as if heard speaking) make Jeffers’ poem social in a way that an imagist lyric is not.  Pieces such as “In a Station of the Metro” are socially constructed objects, and they function socially as they circulate, but social relationships are mostly not figured directly in the poems themselves (even in “To a Solitary Disciple” the disciple is less someone the speaker considers and addresses than a turn of speech—actually, a turn of writing, that initiates the speaker’s attention to the elements of the visual scene, and the speaker is finally not a “speaker” in any actual sense but actually a writer figured as speaker).  In “Credo,” though, what happens within the poem is directly social.  The “friend from Asia” (unlike the solitary disciple) is offered as an actual other, who “believes” differently than the speaker.  And the opening shows that the speaker and friend have already explored their different approaches to the world and the nature of its beauty.  While this implied exchange is prior to the poem, it sets up the dichotomies of East and West (as they functioned between specific individuals and at a particular cultural moment) and of idealism and materialism as frames to the speaker’s speaking, and this nexus of having spoken and of speaking, in turn, projects the reader as an actual other, a listener who is asked to acknowledge the difference between the speaker and his friend as the context for this statement of belief and to consider the nature and validity of the speaker’s belief and to consider the reward (and cost) of believing as the speaker does.

The speaker of “Credo,” thus, stands at the intersection of two implied dialogues, one that happened in the past and the one that occurs as he addresses the reader who he imagines as listening and reacting.  This factor is, finally, both the source and justification of the poem’s discursiveness.  “Credo” is not so much an aesthetic object as an aesthetic action.  The beauty that the speaker praises in the poem is not the beauty of the crafted beautiful object (the poem itself raised to the status of the beauty it supposedly records) but is instead “The beauty of things” that is prior to the poem, that extends beyond the poem, and which cannot be reified into an aesthetic object.  The goal in “Credo” is less to transform the real into a poem than to use the poem to drive a recognition of the real and an engagement with it.  If the imagist lyric can be a moment so intensely distilled, transformed, and fixed as language that it is redeemed from time, the lyric meditation of “Credo” must unfold as if in time and lead out to a recognition of time and process that eclipses the poem.  The poem invokes reality in order to point to it and drive an apprehension of the real that is beyond the poem rather than being in the poem.  It must, that is, unfold as a heightened moment of speaking, a witness, that happens to be recorded in writing.

Just as “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” show Pound and Williams using the page to intensify writing as visual code, “Credo” shows Jeffers using the page to intensify writing as a representation of speech.  The line break that intensifies the word “only” in line seven illustrates this:

. . . the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;

The emphasis the break gives to “only” can (unlike the emphasis on “depends” in “The Red Wheelbarrow”) be fully conveyed by the voice and perceived by the ear.  Similarly, the way the seventh line offers “the ocean in the bone vault,” then follows “only” with two phrases that play against it uses the aural echo and near repetition to make both the image and what might be termed the conceptual action apparent to the ear and emphasize it.  The writing, that is, functions as a script, and the spacing suggests how the line should be said and heard.  How it is imagined as heard speech controls the experience.  The repetition of words and sounds similarly works for and by the ear.  It heightens or intensifies the language beyond ordinary speaking, yet the resonance and interplay of sounds reinforces the sense of the language as voiced and as a mode of speech.  In the following lines some of the repeated or echoed sounds are noted in bold face, and several key repeated or varied words are italicized:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.

One might also note the effect of the “er” sounds in the last of these lines and the way the hard consonants that close the word “salt” and the first syllable of “actual” sound out against the more open sounds that close most of the words (“magic” is the other word in these lines where the final consonant brings the sound to a hard stop) and add a dramatic and auditory emphasis to the phrase “the salt, the actual” that matches its conceptual emphasis in the poem.

The enriched sound and rhythm of the speaking voice in “Credo” has several functions.  It marks the piece as “poetic,” as artful, as more than ordinary speaking.  Yet it also intensifies our sense that we are hearing a voice, situated in time and addressing us.  This gives the page a certain (albeit illusory) transitivity.  In the imagist lyric as Pound theorized it, the poet composes (writes) the poem onto the page, and the written page becomes the poem.  The page might be said to function reflexively: the poet interacts with the page in fashioning an aesthetic object; the reader in turn re-enacts this interaction with the page by regarding the aesthetic object in the proper way (much as one might regard a painting).  In “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” we infer the poet as maker (writer) as having once stood, as it were, on the other side of the page, but we are not asked to imagine interacting directly with this figure.  Indeed, the textual dynamic, what might be termed the textual rhetoric (along with the various critical essays and manifestos Pound offered) make it clear that we are not to imagine ourselves interacting, as if in dialogue, through the poem to the poet.  To do so would be to erase a key element in what was, for Pound, Modernism’s modernity and its break with nineteenth century poetics.  As readers we necessarily engage the poem, but our interaction is to be with the written object inscribed on and stored on the surface of the page—the constructed (i.e. meticulously composed) aesthetic object.  As Modernist readers of the Modernist poem/object (later so aptly evoked through Cleanth Brooks’s image of the poem as “well wrought urn”) we engage the poem through its written gestures, the visual elements these project, and their functional interaction (that “equation” that Pound imagines as transforming the raw material of actual perception and emotional response into the aesthetic moment).  In “Credo,” though, the way the writing is cast as speech asks us to hear a voice that speaks not only from the page but as if through it.  The one approach casts the page as a space for organizing writing; the other treats it as a space for enacting voice.  The one approach brings the reader to a seemingly direct apprehension of, and participation in, the poem’s aesthetic energy (its equation); the other approach depends on the reader’s ability to empathize with the figure who speaks as if across and through (though actually from) the page and poem.

In the case of “Credo” it is the reader’s ability to empathize with the speaker’s affirmation of the “heart breaking beauty” of the natural world—even as the speaker implicitly acknowledges that this acceptance of nature as other also confronts one with a sense of one’s own mortality—that gives the poem its energy and pushes the reader to experience this same mix of affirmation and loss.  The poem looks beyond the social realm of speaking and listening but does so by harnessing the empathy of the social act of speaking and listening.  One could, of course, see “Credo” as simply a chattier (and thus lesser) version of “To a Solitary Disciple,” where an “I” also presents the material of the poem, and the poem offers a heightened awareness of beauty, but in Williams’ poem the speaker is not dramatically specific nor dramatically active to the same degree or in the same way as the speaker in “Credo.”  In “To a Solitary Disciple” the speaker is a device used to focus our attention on the written equation that the interplay of the visual elements embodies and that the reader can apprehend (“grasp”) through the right kind of looking at the poem and its writing.  If we reach the perceptual and imaginative breakthrough that the poem sets up, the speaker simply drops from the picture (much as a catalytic agent drops out of a chemical reaction).  In “Credo,” though, the figure of the speaker experiences the dilemma of the poem as if directly, speaks from this dramatic participation to the “you” of the reader, and remains engaged throughout the poem.  The speaker is, in fact, doubly engaged—with the terms of the experiential dilemma and with the reader as the addressed other, and the speaker remains an active mediation between the reader and the terms of the poem—and actually, the speaker is most present at the end, when the speaker and reader both recognize and share their mutual yet distinct isolations in a redemptive nature in a moment of intensified awareness that derives from the poem but moves beyond it.

As the example of “Credo” illustrates, the difference between poems that use alphabetic characters as visual language (writing that need not be mediated by and perceived through the sound of the words to be understood) and poems that use this same set of visual alphabetic characters more as a system to represent composed acts of speech (that happen to be stored and transmitted through the visual units) isn’t that the latter place more emphasis on the sound of words (this is sometimes, but not always, the case).  Rather, the difference has more to do with the function of the page itself.  In poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” the page is a visual field for structuring written units.  In poems like “Credo” the page is an aural field for enacting speaking.  The former operates as if beyond our outside or having transcended time; the latter operates as if enmeshed in time, the passing of time.

At least for poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, using the page as a space for writing as a visual system and using writing as a way to transmit composed speech have different rhetorical tendencies and implications.  In poems where the page is more a visual field, the speaker is often effaced or is a figure or set of figures inscribed within the field of the poem (as are the various voices and registers of voices in The Waste Land) rather than being a subjective other or agent who (implicitly) stands beyond the frame of the poem addressing the reader as if a “you” who might hear and respond.  We may, if we choose, project a disposition behind the text that we label Eliot or infer a position from the various figures of the epic heroes in The Cantos that we equate with Pound’s constructing consciousness, but we do not, for the most part, treat poems like The Waste Land or The Cantos as if the figure of the poet addresses us directly[2] (the crisis, both poetic and personal, that drives Pound to a more direct, confessional act of speaking in The Pisan Cantos is, I’d suggest, an exception that proves the tendency).  And this is even clearer in pieces such as “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow, which seem to have no speaker but seem instead (to borrow the poet Louis Simpson’s suggestive pun) to have an “eye” instead of an “I.”[3]  In these poems the speaker (perhaps more properly the speaker function) is, finally, contained within the poem, while in poems like “Credo,” conversely, the poem seems contained within the speaker who speaks as if through the marks on the page.  We cannot actually reply to the “I” in “Credo,” but we hear the poem as if we could, and the way the poem invites the reader to share empathetically in the final recognition functions something like a moment of response where the “I” and “you” are linked by their parallel participations in the process of projecting beyond the frame of the poem.

Today our canon of modern American poetry tends to privilege poets, like Pound and the early Williams, who focused on the potentials of writing as a visual system rather than poets, like Jeffers, who worked more in terms of writing as represented sound and speech and cast the reader in the position of listener and hearer.  Perhaps poetry that treats writing as a visual code is inherently and inevitably more worthy than poetry that treats writing as an auditory system, but perhaps (and I think more plausibly) our critical training and current critical preferences have helped us be more alert to poems that must be seen than poems that must be heard.  If so, perhaps we need to learn how, why, and when to hear the page as well as how, why, and when to see it if we are to understand more adequately the array of poetic projects that made the first half of the twentieth century such a rich period of innovation and achievement.


[1]  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume I, 1920-1928, Ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 239.

[2]  If we do imagine such a voice in these poems, we are, of course, reading directly against the grain of Eliot’s position in his highly influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

[3]  Louis Simpson, Adventures of the Letter I (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971).  This distinction relates, clearly, to the vexed contemporary question of “presence,” a matter not addressed in this piece but which I hope to address elsewhere.


Tim Hunt is professor emeritus in Literature from Illinois State University. His scholarly publications include Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a FictionThe Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose, and the five volumes of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  Hunt has also published three collections of poetry.  Fault LinesThe Tao of Twang, and Poem’s Poems & Other Poems received three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his the poem “Lake County Elegy” has been awarded the Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize.

Showing vs. Telling is reposted from Professor Hunt’s website at THunt.com

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Poetry, Poetry Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s