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Poetic insights into becoming a poem -- and being one


Being a Poem in the Making (Part #5)


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If poetry is highly dependent on metaphor, it is appropriate to note the insight of Kenneth Boulding (Ecodynamics; a new theory of social evolution, 1978):

Our consciousness of the unity of self in the middle of a vast complexity of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the unity of group, organization, department, discipline or science. If personification is a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors -- we might be one ourselves.

Despite the inspiration of multiverse and its subtleties, as highlighted above, there is a sense in which the preoccupation of those cited is fundamentally "about" poetry as a written "product". This would appear to extend to the field of critical "metapoetics" -- corresponding to "metascience" -- as notably reviewed by Graham Zanker (Metapoetics, or Leaving the Poetry Behind? The Classical Review (New Series), 49, 1, 1999, pp. 13-15).

The epistemological challenge of both modes of knowing -- science and poetics -- may be more fruitfully approached by efforts to centre the engendering identity within the process, irrespective of commentary on any product (especially the product of others). This calls for "re-cognition" of the process of "doing science" or "making poetry". With respect to science, insights into "doing mathematics" are of particular relevance (George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From: how the embodied mind brings mathematics into being, 2000). The relevance of a process-focus in the case of poetry, in contrast with preoccupation with the product, has been highlighted with respect to articulation of strategy (Poetry-making and Policy-making: arranging a marriage between Beauty and the Beast, 1993).

Clues may then be sought in efforts to articulate "being a poem" -- fruitfully extended to "becoming a song" -- even though those efforts necessarily result in a product which is the focus of commentary and criticism. The relevance to popular culture is exemplified by the much-cited lyrics of I Am a Song. A highly influential example is the work of Walt Whitman (Song of Myself, 1855). In the poem he emphasizes an all-powerful "I" which serves as narrator, not limited to or confused with the person of the historical Walt Whitman. The persona described has transcended the conventional boundaries of self:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you....

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe,
and am not contain'd between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)...

The past and present wilt -- I have fill'd them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future....
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Other allusions to this perspective include the following:

  • Madeline Hartmann (The Man Behind the Miracle, Lost Coast Press, 2000: I am a poem of God. A poem gives existence to nothing; it is the music of thought, it reveals the loveliness of nature... (p. 219)

  • Kanaan (Literati: a revolution of living, iUniverse, 2003): Remember I am a poem, you are a poem too, and in this inevitability there is salvation at last... (p.120).

  • Cris Janoff (Coins Into the Fountain: A Book of Songs, iUniverse, 2003): Find My Way Home / I am the sun, / but I've forgotten how to shine / I am a poem / but I just can't rhyme (p. 172)
  • Peter Gizzi (The Outernationale, Wesleyan University Press, 2008):
When twigs scratching
join to an idea of time
to a picture of being
Like to be beside and becoming
to be another and oneself
to be complete inside the poem
To be oneself becoming a poem (p. 60)
  • Larry Gaines (I Am a Poem, Carry On, The League, 62-65, 1982):

I am a poem.
I am yours to have and to hold.
Accept me in the form I come
And I will become what you'd have me be. (p. 43)

  • Derek Walcott (The Gulf, 12), as cited by Patricia Ismond (Abandoning Dead Metaphors: the Caribbean phase of Derek Walcott's poetry, University of the West Indies Press, 2001):

Resisting poetry I am becoming a poem.
O lolling Orphic head silently howling
my own head rises from its surf of cloud

Various authors have commented on "being a poem". A radically contrasting perspective is noted by Jong S. Jun (Rethinking Administrative Theory: the challenge of the new century, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002):

I noted that there seems to be an increasing acceptance of the view that human identity is socially produced. [Jacques] Lacan certainly appreciated this perspective -- as in his oft-quoted pronouncement "I am not a poet. I am a poem being written" (p. 15)

Harold Kaplan (Poetry, Politics, and Culture: argument in the work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Williams, 2006):

The distinction between Saying and Said is fundamental -- and the issue can simply be put that poetry... brings them together... Insofar as the ethical contact with the other involves my "turning myself into a sign" signifying the "donation of the sign", that is, the donation of myself, [Emmanuel] Levinas implies both that I am a poem (in the ethical sense) and that the poem is I, when he depicts poetry in ethical terms as "Saying without said"... In this rather convoluted discussion... Ambiguity will always remain in the effort "to attain a pre-linguistic, pre-logical, ethical level of signification" an effort that becomes the shared responsibility of the reader. (pp. 270-271)

Heward Wilkinson (The Muse as Therapist: a new poetic paradigm for psychotherapy, 2009):

A poem, in sum, is the manifestation of a person, and, conversely, a person's self-expression, and total intentionality, reaches towards their "becoming a poem". A poem is a paradigm of enacted intentionality. To transcend the concrete and the linear, the goal of the narrative psychotherapies, at any rate, is by its nature to enter the realm of poetry, of totality and infinity, where meaning becomes infinite, and infinitely cross connected. Poetry is therapy; therapy is poetry. (p. 24) [emphasis in original]

The cognitive capacity to be a poem or a song is to be contrasted with that of science in which "being a theory" or "being a hypothesis" is less meaningful. The Canadian artist Michael Snow asserted: I don't need a theory, I am a theory. Might Descartes have said: I theorize, therefore I am? (cf. John Piippo, The Evolutionary Function of Theorizing, 2008). Over-identification with a model -- "being a model" -- could however be a theme of credible criticism, as the following suggests.

The Hazards of System Building
Matthew Melko, System Builder
  1. You identify with your system. It cost you blood to build it,and if it is attacked, it is your blood that is being shed.
  2. You cannot tolerate tentativeness, suspension of judgment, or anything that does not fit the system.
  3. You cannot apprehend anyone else's system unless it supports yours.
  4. You believe that other systems are based on selected data.
  5. Commitment to systems other than your own is fanaticism.
  6. You come to believe that your system entitles you to proprietorship of the entities within it.
  7. Since humour involves incongruity and. your system explains all seeming incongruities, you lose your sense of humour.
  8. You lose your humility.
  9. You accept all these points -- insofar as they apply to builders of other systems.
  10. So do I. (P.S. I hope I believe in the cult of fallibility)
Offered to participants at the Foundation for Integrative Education Conference, Oswego, 1969;
reproduced in Main Currents in Modern Thought, vol. 269 no. 2

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