In March 2016, our correspondent Anthony Madrid began composing a set of quasi-kōans (on the theme “What is poetry for?”) for the Chicago arts and commentary magazine The Point. What follows is the second of two sets written for the Daily. (The first one ran in July.) Madrid’s unwieldy and indeed unusable title for the first set was “Both speech and silence are involved in transcendent detachment and subtle wisdom. How can we pass through without error?” His unusable title for the present set is “I always remember Jiangnan in May; where the partridges call, the hundred flowers are fragrant.” (Taken together, the two titles constitute Case 24 in the Song Dynasty kōan collection Wumenguan.)
Public Case 6: Ancient Chinese
Our teacher said: “Has anyone ever noticed that many of the most attractive ancient Chinese poets have the same ideas about poetry as modern American high school students? Anyhow, the themes are the same. What am I doing today. How am I feeling. What’s my philosophy. What can I see from where I’m sitting. What just happened. I am kind of a loser. What are my favorite quotes.”
One of the students said: “James Schuyler.”
Comment. It is hard for twenty-first-century USA poets to really understand old Chinese poetry: no surprise there. The surprise is that we find our own childhoods as difficult to “relate to” as the literary world of premodern China. We rub our eyes in disbelief when we have anything in common with either.
Tao Qian, James Schuyler, our own sixteen-year-old selves—of course they write about what they can see from where they’re sitting. What else can be seen?
The truth is almost everyone has almost everything in common. The main exception is the people who are “too smart for that.” They make a point of not having anything in common with anybody.
Public Case 7: Berryman
Our teacher said: “Doesn’t everyone feel it’s bs, what Berryman says at the beginning of The Dream Songs—?” She opened the book and read:
The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss …
She cut in impatiently: “I’ve read the biography. Henry’s not Berryman, okay, but he’s not not Berryman either. Henry is a dramatization of Berryman’s inner climate, that’s all.”
One of the students said: “He pleads innocent, and you want him to plead guilty.”
Our teacher said: “I want him to plead nolo contendere.”
Comment. In other words, she would have rather there be no note. But the note itself is part of the show, is it not? One more “dream song,” one more performance of sophistication within hysteria. (Both the sophistication and the hysteria are at least partly made up.)
The teacher is right, just the same. Disavowals, disclaimers of this sort are always a matter of speaking to the concerns of readers who don’t want to “waste time” reading anybody who was a Bad Person. But why should literary people care about such readers? Shouldn’t they be ignored?
A witty student who had swallowed a library once named Strong Opinions (a book composed almost entirely of interviews) as his favorite Nabokov novel. This is more in the spirit of things.
Public Case 8: The Cat Door
Our old teacher said: “Inspiration is like a cat. It comes when it wants, not when I want. We can cut it a cat door so it can get in, but everything else is down to the cat. Here in art school, all we do is show you how to cut a cat door.”
Somebody objected: “I thought anybody could write whenever they wanted, if they would just—quote—sit down doggedly to it.”
Our old teacher said: “Well, there you go. Cats and dogs—take your pick.”
Somebody muttered: “That’s no answer.” And somebody else added: “Yeah, the whole question is who gets to pick.”
Comment. The only good thing here is “Cats and dogs—take your pick.” The students don’t seem to have understood it. The old teacher himself came in through the cat door; he was counseling patience. The students, as they always will, were trying to get around needing patience, so he calls them cats and dogs and tells them to think whatever they like.
Public Case 9: Troilus
One of the students said: “Have any of you ever looked at Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde translated into modern prose? It’s awful. The meaning becomes clear, of course—clearer than ever—but the charm is almost entirely wiped out. The poem becomes a hideously inefficient short story, told in the wrong tone of voice.”
Somebody responded: “So you’re saying versification amounts to a tone of voice—?”
Comment. Someone else might’ve said: If the charm is wiped out, how can you say the meaning is intact? But that is a fruitless line of inquiry.
Versification is a tone of voice—there is something to that. I want to call that tone of voice “arch,” and not just in the case of Troilus and Criseyde. In general.
Public Case 10: Moratorium
One of the older students (shallow, a great reader of poetry reviews, not too bright, list-keeping) said: “I hereby declare a moratorium on the following words: breathtaking, stunning, astonishing, astounding, heartbreaking, and devastating. Also the word arguably. These should no longer be used in reviews of poetry.”
Somebody responded: “Suppose your moratorium were respected for twenty-five years. Could reviewers be allowed to use the words then?”
The law-giving student said: “No. Those words should never have been used.”
Comment. The slow and shallow are in many ways reliably correct and wise, simply because abstractions hold no allure for them. They are immune to the sophomoric, and so they would never come up with a statement like Why am I allowed to find a poem heartbreaking, but not allowed to say so?
The slow and shallow also trust their boredom more than clever people, who are apt to scold themselves for being bored. This is why the slow and shallow mature more quickly than others.
Public Case 11: Mabinogion
A guest lecturer, learnèd, visionary, unreliable, said: “On the first page of the Mabinogion, a king rides out, hunting, and sees someone else’s dogs running down a deer. He goes to the fallen deer, sends away the other person’s dogs, and takes the deer for himself. Presently the owner of the other dogs rides up—looking very much like someone of importance—and says he has never seen such rudeness. The king asks him who he is. The man says he is the Lord of the Underworld. The king says something to the effect of How can I make this up to you? and the Lord of the Underworld proceeds to unfold a scheme …
“Now, I don’t want to get into the scheme. I want to point out rather the way the storyteller doesn’t say a word about the king’s motivations. You expect the story to make some kind of exculpatory moves there, but no. The message seems to be: This is what happens. People just sometimes do bad things.
“Medieval narrative is often like that. The interiority of the characters is sharply limited. And the weirder the morals, the more clearly this appears. The Icelandic sagas are like this. In fact, the Old Testament is like this.
“Now I want to ask all of you: Given the obvious superiority of this older narrative style, at least in terms of momentum, is it not surprising that this style has been almost entirely wiped off the face of the earth?”
Comment. So many good things have been wiped out. Stories where the characters have no interiority; long poems that tell you everything you need to know about something (e.g., beekeeping); epigrams. It’s not at all clear these things were set aside for good reason.
Once upon a time there was a sage who only had one insight. It was that the great Modernists achieved what they did, all of them, by mining the archaic. True, this insight caused the sage to love every single crank who came along, including ones whose only merit was that they mined the archaic. Still: the archaic. It’s good stuff.
I’ll go now. But before I do, I want to point out that meddling with deer seems to carry some kind of occult connection to verbal dexterity. It’s how Shakespeare got his start. And one of the most memorable passages in Mengzi (1B.2) is about poaching deer. One could multiply examples very easily. Perhaps this relationship reveals one of those acupuncture meridians we’re always looking for. Petrarch 190 and Wyatt’s famous transfiguration of same. Also, the medieval Welsh poem “Eiry Mynydd” has deer behind every corner.
Anthony Madrid now lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.