Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shadow Poems

A great Tinge interview with Kristin Prevallet includes a discussion on Shadowing poems:

Referring to my “shadowing” of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, after reading one of the sections at Temple, I had a wonderful conversation and brief correspondence with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and we decided that her notion of “torquing” and my notion of “shadowing” are conversant. (By the way, my notion of shadowing comes from Anne Waldman.) Think about torquing as describing the action of taking a “core” text (for me it was Four Quartets, for Rachel it was George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous) and writing into the energy of every line so that the basic structure of the original is still evident, but the context and meaning of the words change. Check out this diagram:

Diagram by Xavier Snelgrove from Wikimedia Commons.

In the image of the top, there is a center (which is the original poem). Once you start torquing it, the force of the momentum around it causes it to move. So the poem may shift in tone, register, metaphor, and measure, but you can still “sense” the fulcrum of Oppen, or Eliot, or Whitman, etc. But it has been “overlaid,” and so takes on an assuming presence. I wrote to Rachel that “I wonder if ‘shadow’ refers to the end result — not the process or act of sitting down to torque the language, but the shadow that appears to help the reader gain her bearings in the collaboration.…”
To use the physics of the top, there seems to be two ways to control how it spins: angular momentum (L) and torque (tau). So maybe that is the balance between the two — different parts of the same equation?
Perhaps another way to think about the “shadow” is in parallel to shadow theater (not to muddle with your term too much). The method or play becomes the moving of the center farther or closer to the light source, bringing the image in or out of focus and making it appear larger or smaller. It’s more about looking at the effect than the object or process that is casting the shadow. That may be a little too much like the Allegory of the Cave, but does it jibe with what you had in mind?

Well, once we really try and get into it, it’s all about metaphor — it’s hard to talk about it any other way but through the vision field of something else. I do like your shadow theater image, and the idea of the original text as a “light” that goes in and out of focus, sometimes blurring completely as the new text becomes a poem (event in language) in and of itself…I prefer this lingering on the metaphorical realm to getting too far into physics, because this whole idea of shadow/torque is a mental activity — as William Carlos Williams said: “There is no thing that with a twist of the imagination cannot be something else.” Physics leaves little room for that (as it is classically understood).
As for Plato’s allegory, Coldplay’s “Fix You” song, and actually even more so the video, covers everything I both love and hate about Plato and what the imagery of “light” represents culturally. It’s such an omnipresent metaphor.
Light is omnipresent, and often more direct than metaphor. Maybe this is why it’s more important to look at the shadows, because we can more fully engage in the metaphor. Especially today, our culture will whitewash more often than “guide you home and ignite your bones.” Is the subject of light and shadow how you chose some of the work for which you’ve written “shadow poems”?
Wow, you are firing my synapses! So, I used to teach freshman composition, and I always taught the Allegory of the Cave as a means of revealing a metaphor that is so culturally clichéd that it’s everywhere (see the light, free yourself from mental slavery, truth is power, etc.). After reading it out loud with the students and then having them draw it, I played the “Fix You” video and asked them to analyze it in relation to the Allegory of the Cave. It’s just too perfect, whether Chris Martin meant it or not. What always struck me about that assignment is how amazingly successful it was for students, and how dreadfully it failed for me. In other words, it reinforced ideas of “truth” and “knowledge” and “beauty” and led to precious few cultural critiques of how that metaphor oppresses as much as it enlightens.
I followed it with Malcolm X’s education narrative, but still the value of the “light” was vivified for most students. (Obviously, as in any class, there are five or so who take it to another level and question rhetorical supremacy of white = light, etc.)
So, Eliot = white and is equated with Plato’s sun (knowledge, power, status, stature). He’s also got the whole “buried life” thing going on. My “shadowing” of the poem takes the “light” that he so grandiloquently revealed, and recasts it onto a different power source in a different era: Iraq/Afghanistan; cultural depression, and environmental catastrophe. So, yes, I am playing with the light.
I recently participated in a panel at Harvard called “Poetic Fashion and Unfashion: Literary Outliers Roundtable” with Annie Finch, Cate Marvin, and Don Share. We talked about what “embarrasses” us in terms of sources/references that are not cool, or in keeping with current trends in poetics. I spent my time talking about Duncan’s H.D. book and my work on Helen Adam. One of the issues that came up for me was that the contemporary (our poetic “now”) can focus bantering with and resisting sources of power in the poetry world (like Poetry Magazine, perhaps, or The New Yorker), but it’s much more interesting — and I think relevant to the long-term work of poets — to focus on larger systemic and structural issues at play in larger worlds. For me, I find the Ecopoetics project (Skinner, Ijima, Durand, etc.) or the Somatic poetry project (Conrad, Kocik, Stecopoulos, et al.) very relevant to the way I am thinking about writing as well as the way I am enacting participation in the larger world, because these ways of thinking about poetry are generative, as opposed to reactionary.
In other words, I’m cooking up Eliot in a shadow-torque soup not to impress anyone except for those with whom I am in correspondence — where correspondence means a widening sphere of potential influences, friends, and commiserators (not a word, but I like it), both known and unknown. The light comes from the source that you tend. (Which is another way of saying “Which wolf will win? The one you feed”…)

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