I tweeted today that Eleanor Hooker’s new book “A Tug of Blue” had arrived and that the poems had a certain kind of “perfection” that involved the simultaneity of formal and moral aspects. This must have sounded strange! We don’t use the word “perfection” these days outside hyperbolic praise; nor do we use “moral” and “formal” very often in discussions of poems. Probably most people read it as a “blurb” and took no offense. But I think I can figure out why my tweet had those discomfiting words in it.
There’s a language of praise to which “perfect” belongs. The word etymologically means
“made through and through”; and this significance would point to the other problem with that I said, the idea of a poem being simultaneously both formally and morally perfect.
First, “perfect,” aside from its etymological roots, involves terms like “good.” They function in various circumstances: a good meal, a good lover, a good parent. A second aspect of perfection terms is that they are “achievement” terms. They measure the degree to which the individual FAILS to live up to the standard implicit in the contextual meaning. The food at the new restaurant is pretty good: we judge the meal by a standard. This openness involves the ongoing judgement: the degree of goodness is always on a sliding scale. (I’ve learned a lot about perfection terms from Stephen Mulhall’s THE GREAT RIDDLE.)
In the case of Eleanor’s new poems, the category includes, for example, in my experience anyway, the “anthology of Early Irish lyrics titled “The Finest Music” (ed. Maurice Riordan). The title obviously uses the rhetoric of “praise” and praise often engages the idea of perfectibility (or perfection). This 9th century lyric translated by Thomas A. Clark comes to mind:
cold mountain rough feral black wolves and winds howl in its glens howl about its high places the stag bellows in autumn in bewilderment of gold herons sit by its waters
The poem opens with a rather uncomplicated description of “cold mountain.” At the same time “uncomplicated” doesn’t quite cover the rhetoric of the sequence of “rough feral black” — this is just outside the norm and so expressive of something uncommon. The whole poem works this way into a sense of rare experience. The process of arriving at such a rare state of perception we experience in light of accepted modes of “perfection” — perfection is the extreme of a range of experiences.
The poem goes on to “fill in” the space created by the description. Intensity is created by specifying the source of the wonder: the blended sounds of wolves and winds; the repetition of “howl” and the distancing of the sound “in its high places” — all this combines in a sound image that is solidified in a common image of the bellowing stag. There’s an elegant telescoping of sound in the first five lines of the poem.
The final two lines, astonishingly, quiet every thing down. The feel of this “couplet” would almost create a sensory gap just when we expected a climax. The word “bewilderment” however captures the subjectivity of the intensification of the imagery. Who is bewildered? “In bewilderment of gold” is “difficult” in the sense that unlike the previous language of the poem it is not strictly clear; an “equivocation” is involved. That equivocation is somehow “perfected” or given a local habitation and a name in the final image of herons “sitting” by its waters. Are they “bewildered” as they “sit’ between the sounds of wind, and wolves and stags and their own waters?
I’d say then that this 9th century Irish poem involves us in a moral ecology. Not “moral” in terms of “morality” but moral in terms of our appreciation of the “perfectibility” of the image TOWARDS the ontological state conveyed by “bewilderment of gold” as fleshed out by the iconic image of “herons sit by its waters” — an almost “sacred” image; and again, the “almost’ is part of the “perfect” language of the poem.
Regardless of the original, Clark has employed a rich language of “perfection” that moves the contemporary reader in ways befitting the expectations we have of the lyric.
One can’t help think, “anachronistically, of Yeats. Poetry involves our sense of perfectibility in our aesthetic memories, so maybe we don’t have to apologize for the “anachronism” of our appreciation. The ancient poem moves from a seasonal image of “cold” to a more universal image of “bewilderment of gold.”
This gold standard, so to speak, was “behind” my blurb. In the Tweet I photographed the poem “Skipping Stones.”
The poem involves a little story about the poet removing to her special place — where she experiences the delicious partnership with the place in solitude — being interrupted — syntactically unannounced — by a “She.” There’s some wonderful footwork executed by Hooker at this point.
Skipping Stones A rare day and the lake is a tug of blue and the haul of water is a tow of sky, and I stop in my quiet place to skip stones, mindful of change. She doesn't pass by, she stops to say they're having a bash to which everyone we know is going and, well, since its up to her ... I retreat to my quiet place, mindful of change, aware that the multiple bounce of stones is dependent on the angle at which they're thrown, and the object is to skip as many times as possible, before sinking.
The ambiguity of the “She” and the equivocation of the pronouns — she, they, we, everyone — sketch out the dialogical moment as perhaps “subjective”: the “She” could well be an aspect of the poet’s self, tempting herself away from “my quiet place.” This is the mark of the “modern” — this severe self-consciousness mapped by the grammar of the language. The same grammar, I note, that governs our use of perfection terms. The “retreat” after the interruption goes more deeply into the private self before it returns to the “law” of possibility governing all events in this world. The “sinking” feeling is there BECAUSE of the perfectibility of the moment as one skips stones.
The poise of the poem between “mindfulness of change” and the perfecting of one’s ability to skip stones (towards infinity?) gives the poem an elegant moral compass. And so my sense of a fusion of moral and formal elegance in at least this poem was not too far off . . . .
I think if you look at that poem “objectively” you will see a kinship with the Ninth-Century poem. “A rare day” — a conventional opening BUT one that engages the “perfectible” use of “rare.” The balance of the first line and the second line moves into the equivocal language of poetry: “the lake is a tug of blue / and the haul of water is a tow of sky, / and I stop. . . .” While the ancient poet did not use metaphors to convey his sense of things, the intensification of the landscape is something they have in common. And so on and so on. They also share “mindfulness of change” — the poems are a response to a happening in the real world, the world of finite individuals, the world “between” the brute fact and the fulfillment of our desires. Hooker’s swerve in “I retreat to my quiet place, / mindful of change ….” sets up the final “metaphor.” The “object” when skipping stones “is to skip as many times / as possible, before sinking.”
The “moral” aspect of this poem reminds one of Frost’s stoic narratives. And yet the sense of “perfection” enlivens the language and the structure of the poem-as-poem.
Given the occasion of the poem — the interruption of a quiet day by someone inviting the poet to a “bash” — the word “skip” has ambiguity that provides insights into the state of mind of the poet, a state of mind in keeping with “my quiet place” but in the final image open to the inescapable fact that after however so many skips the stone always sinks — as if in defeat? exhaustion? relief? Or is it the poet who sinks?