The French Alps, a Scottish island, a breezy, autumnal lake in the USA . . . These all came back to mind* as I read Jack Underwood’s just-published essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ (Poetry Review, Winter 2017). To be clear, I am sympathetic to the general drift of his argument, his interest in language and epistemology and his enthusiasm for poetry as contributing a necessary part of our understanding of the world. But Underwood is too disparaging about language (it’s most of what we’ve got) and this leads to his own imprecision with it (because words don’t yield the whole truth doesn’t mean we should use them carelessly). I wish he’d given better examples of what he is urging poets to pursue (so I’ve included one below) and I’m horrified that he recommends vague, woolly raptures (fog and smudge) to poets rather than genuine provisionality and uncertainty reflected in language that is sceptically self-aware.
Starting from a remembered childhood scene, Underwood argues, as his title suggests, that poetry is an area of discourse which both highlights and thrives on epistemological uncertainty. Such uncertainties arise firstly from “the innate inaccuracy of language as a system that cannot catch or hold onto anything securely”. In a postmodern world, this hardly makes headlines, but the hyperbolic expression is too much, given that language gets me through most of my days reasonably well; it has to be grasping something. A second uncertainty arises from the poet’s raw material – particularly the “gunk of unconscious activity” – all of which is subjective and unstable because any meaning/knowledge is actually a concept only associated with human perception and not something corresponding to a universe existent apart from human perception. Hence, in the end, Underwood argues, “all of meaning and knowledge is apprehended, expressed and configured unstably [. . .] a shoal of jellyfish”.
Except that mostly it is not. Surprisingly for a poet, Underwood doesn’t take the potency of language seriously enough, in particular the way the words we use have the habit of becoming idolatrous (in the sense used by Owen Barfield); they can determine how we see, think and feel. Here’s a pretty, remembered scene of my own: in the French Alps above the Trois Vallees, the woven steel cables of chair lifts hang quite still during the night and the cold air seals them in icy sheaths. Come morning, when the engines whir into action at either end of the lifts, the cables suddenly tense and jump, brought to life, and in doing so they shuck off their icy jackets. The frozen moisture cracks, fragments and detaches from the cables. Down it falls into the snow to print a strange hieroglyphic language in a neat line up the mountainside, looking something like this:
I bet the locals have a word for this modern phenomenon. But from above, it looks like a language in which nothing is cursive (and life tends to the cursive, is always diverging from the linear). This icy steel cable language is – I’d suggest and Underwood would agree – like much of our everyday language use, mostly false. Yet it does possess a certain utilitarian precision, enough to perform its functions within broad criteria. But if our wish is to be more precise, to say something difficult to grasp, a more unusual observation, something more emotionally cursive, then we have to choose our words more carefully, put them together in a different sort of way: we have to unsettle them, bend them, occasionally find new ones, revive old ones in new contexts.
Surprisingly, Underwood’s response to this difficulty is to recommend poets use language which is “foggier” than we might ordinarily use, or language that has been calculatedly blurred or aspires to a kind of “smudging”. This simply doesn’t square with most people’s feelings about poetry which is that it tends to clarify experience rather than ‘smudge’ it. The truth is that we need to respond to language’s limits by working harder with language not neglecting it. Underwood would do well to read Robert Macfarlane’s book, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), which passionately argues against the loss of regional, place-specific language, a loss which means we are progressively perceiving natural landscapes in fewer dimensions, slipping into an ever more abstract, narrow, linear understanding of experience. Macfarlane argues that “Language deficit leads to attention deficit” and perhaps Underwood would agree but Macfarlane grasps that we do not liberate ourselves from the tyranny of language by using it vaguely, but ever more precisely. In Landmarks, he is concerned that the Oxford Junior Dictionary of 2007 deletes heron, ivy, kingfisher, pasture and willow among many other words considered irrelevant in reflecting the “consensus experience of modern-day childhood”. The word blackberry has been replaced by Blackberry.
And this is no narrow Cambridge academic’s concern. Macfarlane also tells the story of the proposed building of a vast wind farm on Brindled Moor on the Isle of Lewis in 2004: 234 wind turbines, each 140 metres high, 5 million cubic metres of rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat excavated and displaced. The debate centred around “the perceived nature and worth of the moor”. Proponents discussed it as a “wasteland”, a “wilderness”, a “vast, dead place”. Opponents – including 80% of the island’s inhabitants – argued for the fecund particularity of the moor. Tellingly, part of the defence was lexical in the shape of a Gaelic ‘Peat Glossary’ – hundreds of words describing the subtle features and moods of what is clearly no “dead place” at all. Macfarlane links this “Counter-Desecration Handbook” to poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig but it also reminds me of Blake’s insight: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way”.
Underwood and I would agree that the man who sees only a “green thing” is suffering a lack of poetry – a limitation or failure of perception which is also a failure of linguistic precision. I think of it as an example of that icy steel cable language in the French Alps which falls (or more dangerously is handed down – this is where politics enters the debate) from on high, from some remote, cold place, handed down into our lives and so it begins to determine how we see the world. I share Underwood’s sense of urgency and importance that it is for those who concern ourselves with language and try to scrutinize our relations to the other, to others, to ourselves, to re-double our efforts to make further brief, individual Counter-Desecration Handbooks, to tell what we see as the truths of our lives as accurately as possible. Whatever form they may take, let’s call the resulting texts ‘poems’ and take inspiration finally from a marvellous one by the American poet, David Ferry.
Here, Ferry’s poem can also act as an illustration of several of Underwood’s comments about poetry. He suggests poems convey meanings beyond the “sharper constraints” of everyday language. By “sharper” he surely means narrower and more meanly delimited and Ferry’s poem illustrates that a quite different sharpness (a vividness from the cleansing of the doors of perception) is something poetry does well and yields pleasure for the reader. The poem doesn’t contradict Underwood’s suggestion that we know when we are reading poetry because of its formal qualities, its frequent use of metaphor, its preference for connotation as opposed to denotation. Our acquaintance with the poem certainly sets us “wondering” (Underwood’s rather foggy word) about what we are reading and it suggests and explicitly discusses “a resistance to finality in language”. I don’t think Underwood’s own examples help illustrate his point; I think Ferry’s poem does, confirming how poetry can be the “prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown” (Underwood).
Ferry’s original poetry has long flourished in the shadow of his translation work but his collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012) won the National Book Award. In the UK, his selected poems are published as On This Side of the River (Waywiser Press, 2012). In fluidly, cursively, yet precise language, ‘Lake Water’ brilliantly conveys Ferry’s attentiveness to the world’s presence without losing a sense of the provisional nature of both self and other, the root inscrutabilities of experience (one of Underwood’s main points). There is a pressure exerted in favour of clarity and truth to both inner and outer worlds.
Ferry kicks off with specificity: “a summer afternoon in October”, the narrator gazing at a lake. The opening 20 lines, even as they evoke the light, the shimmer of water, the trees, engage in continual re-interpretations via similes (“As if it were a shimmering of heat”; “as if the air / Had entirely given itself over to summer”) and revisions (“Or rather”; “Or from”) until, in the final lines of this opening passage, paradox seems the only way to encapsulate the experience: “The light / Is moving and not moving upon the water”.
The second section of ‘Lake Water’ reaffirms this process, the perception of the lake “compelling with sweet oblivious / Authority alterations in light and shadow”. Earlier the water had evoked “something infantile [. . .] a baby at the breast” but now – in a progress from innocence to experience – the slapping of the water is “decidedly sexual”. The lake water, at one with the whole process of perceiving it, has become “an origination of life”. The lake surface is “like a page” or “like an idea for a poem not yet written”, or equivocally the “surface of the page is like lake water” before a mark has been made on it. What seeks to be written down is elusive partly as the result of the ambivalent gifts of time: “all my language about the lake [. . . ] erased with the changing of the breeze”.
Ferry saves a poignant twist for the final 6 lines which record a death-bed scene; he watches his wife – distinguished literary scholar, Anne Ferry – who died in 2006. After the moment of her passing, her face is “as untelling” as the lake, “unreadable”, though Ferry clings to and at once denies a last hope: “Her mouth was open as if she had something to say; / But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech”. For all their elegance and plain-speaking, Ferry’s best poems are marvellously unstable, bravely eschewing the linear, poignantly facing up to the limits of the faulty equipment we are given to grasp the world. Elsewhere, Ferry gently devastates with the idea that “death lives in the intention of things / To have a meaning”. Other poets might advocate fogs and smudge, or be reduced to silence, or rip language to shreds, or resort to an icy words, the dead counters of the pre-conceived at this, but Ferry’s provisional songs instruct, console and are to be much admired.