Tuesday, 5 March 2013

progressive insanities

okay then, what do i think

all poetry should be read. even once you get the knack of reading poetry, like looking at a picture, it may be that, yes, you can do all these things they ask you in a classroom but it's not the same as taking your book (i being old, still believe in these things), opening the pages and speaking it out loud, preferably to someone else. for one thing, it may be that you discover that the poem, esp if it's not one of those rhyming ones, is actually full of rhythm and cadences that you never noticed when you were skimming it in your head. it may also be that the other person hearing it will make another set of connections you never even thought about ( there's more of this with atwood elsewhere here - drink was involved. i don;t recommend it as a study aid!). plus, these are words, they're there to be spoken. that's what we are as creatures. speaking out someone's words starts making you feel something, speaking them to someone else, getting them spoken back at you even moreso. when you speak out a poem it becomes something of you.

who's doing the speaking? i'm not a teacher and these next couple of points are a lot to do with why. you could say, and you wouldn't be wrong is that the speaker is some bloke, fettling about in a forest or wilderness* and not enjoying it much. you could say that in the inevitable essay you'd have to write but chances are someone's not going to like it. most likely they're not going to like it, not because you're wrong, though you will be, but because you've said something in a manner or made some conclusion that the person marking it, or, more pertinently the organisation that requires them to do so, finds at odds with their perspective. so you say, hey ho, you want me to tell you what you want to hear rather than what i actually think? is that the game we're playing here? and it pretty much is. tho, i have to say, it's a good game and, even if it doesn't seem so now, the benefits come later. if you're lucky. mostly i think of it like i was doing a science write up. science essays are super prescriptive and there's a form you have to adhere to. that said all your arguments then have to be more or less based on your evidence. humanities may claim this but there's also that element of who's reading it.

so the evidence. who's the speaker and what's he about? certainly he's a he, we know that much but who's the narrator. could be it's atwood but the notion of the 'poetic narrator' is always a wee bit more complicated than that. but it could be atwood channeling her girlish days when she was out in the backwoods with the family. but it's not a child speaking, even a precocious child from years ago, the language is too dense for that. and i don;t think she's speaking about her dad because her poems about him are just too affectionate and i'm not sensing a lot of love for this character. but then there's that other thing. when you're reading, not out loud, whose voice do you hear? me, i hear atwood, because i've met her and i know what she sounds like so i imagine the poem in her voice. in which case the question who's the speaker depends as much on the reader, who they are, where they come from, what they've done. does a poem really 'mean' the same thing for someone the day they read as forty years later. i hope not!

okay then, an omniscient narrator somewhere in a forest/wilderness not enjoying it. but why not? anyone gone out into the woods and built their own shelter for the night? here in scotland there isn't anything that will eat you but i'm guessing for this guy, away up there in canadia, that isn't the case. we're scared of the outside, we're scared of the dark which is why the ideas of animals pattering across the roof*. similarly, have you ever cleared a spot of land, it can be in your garden or where ever and tried to get something to grow in it? we had a rubbish season last year and had i tried to do so in order to eat i'd have starved to death. similarly tho, every year i'm always amazed at the ferocity and abundance of the weeds that invade the space that i've spent so long digging. everything gets in! if it was me asking someone to look at this poem i think i'd take a while and ebcourage them to maintain a garden, or not, and seeing how that garden takes shape. your man in the poem, i'm guessing he doesn't have a book on permaculture in his pocket, i'm guessing he doesn't have a big truck in order to go and order stuff from the seed bank, can't call up his mates on the internet for advice. academics, broadly, don't hump sacks of dirt. this is a shame. for what it's worth, my garden is a wild garden. i do things to it, it's true, but mainly it's an ordered absence and that absence, hopefully, is me.

so what about the topic? and again you're straight back at the reader. me, i grew up in a rural area. all the chat when we were wee (boys) was about tractors, dirt and cows. we had our own animals and we ate them. there was no tv in those days but a lot of books. no poetry. but a lot of music. not so very long ago i found myself back on the islands at lambing. i was going down this wee road and i came across this old couple who were having a bit of bother with the sheep so, being an island, i stopped. no need said the old guy but i was already at it, the instinct of decades before taking right over. lambs are fragile wee things and even more so than most sheep the thing they're best at is dying. you might have some vision of how things are but then your sheep run off a cliff, get one of their many and persistent diseases, the season changes or any one of a million things you never thought of and can only pretend you're in control of. you can proclaim yourself the centre all you like but at the end of the day you just get lucky. or not. these days we'd go out in the wilderness with all our stuff and dig it up and fertilise and pest control and all that (looked at the food on your plate lately?) but narrator boy, or at least my impression of him, is her doesn't have any of that. back in the day they most likely only had faith and last i looked the bible isn't super good as an agricultural manual*. those people are as distant to me as aliens. put me in their situation and i'd be dead in days! you need s structure before you can shout let me out, you need that same structure to be absent before you can shout exactly the same.

so ideas, then. your man's standing on a sheet of green paper. for who? for him, or for the poet? it's the start of the poem, it's all just blank paper but the poet isn't going to talk about that, at least not overtly. she's a character in a white sheet of paper about to assert herself in your head. and it's not green paper - it's a forest/wilderness. for the poet it's now a metaphor. in other words it's a 'thing' it's not. i'm only writing this because me and t were well out in the nature yesterday. as privileged middle class people with lots of leisure time the notion is not to describe, not to wander lonely as a cloud but to listen, to see and pretend for a moment we can vanish into this which we have all the security of knowing we can't. people would come, people would look for us. the guy in the poem, he's not that lucky. if you've time look back maybe to the 17th century and see how people talked about the wilderness. they're just on the cusp of viewing it as something to be feared but a long way away from our perspective of it as some sort of risk averse playground. and yet we're still scared of the dark, the forest still spooks us. that's a long cultural memory. the sort of thing that programmes us and we can't unwrite it.

second stanza at first glance looks easy. here's a man, all geometric, setting up his fields like he's the later mondrian. ploughing that furrow, yes, a man ploughing that furrow. this is atwood and you cannae be missing that kind of caper. and then she says it - i am not random. this is my favourite line in the poem, the sort of thing when you're writing you happen across and you want to dance a wee jig across the room. here's your man, all geometric, all structuralist in the face of this woolly, fuzzy edged nature declaring, intoning if you like - i am not random. because we, the readers, hey we're not like that either. oh really? sitting there at our computers, working for our organisations ( you don;t think school/college is an organisation!!), learning what to think about one of canadia's touchstone canonical poets. oh yeah, we so much more not random than this guy. this is the line where you discover that this is not a poem about a guy in a forest but  something ideological, philosophical and we're firmly rutted (sic!) in at least a variant of free will vs determinism. brilliant. and then she blows it with the fattest, laziest line of the poem. speaks in aphorisms! you could argue that it's here the forest is being characterised, individualised, that she's making a binary division between the structured world of the man and the unstructured world of nature, you could use words like apollonian and dionysian and no-one would blame you but i'd still think it's a fat, lazy line. it may be you like a poem but that doesn't mean you have to like every bit of it, like a mate with irritating habits.

third stanza, more of the same. the house as a synonym for mind i kind of like but really it's all about the re-iteration. oh aye, and never forgetting the fact she's building a house in your mind! which draws a neat wee parallel bt what comes along after a house is built? the wolf. now it may be that in canadia the wolf has all manner of other resonances but for me houses plus big bad wolves will always be connected. i predict a wolf. i may be right!

stanza 4. looks a bit funny this one but, as far as i can guess she's liking those st sounds. lots of s's in here as well. it reiterates the binary opposition  but again there's the instability inherent in that position that she highlights with the inversion of ordered absence. nice wee argument maybe but they're two sides of the same coin. the forest isn't a character, it says nothing. all we're doing by aligning ourselves with the binary argument is picking an ideological position. in the structure of this house (geddit!) one is either right or wrong. at this point there isn't another way.

the fifth stanza is one of my favourite atwood stanzas. again my interpretation of this stanza is entirely down to me and my personal engagement/obsession with moby dick. fishing for the the great vision? enticing whales? i can't see past this. and so, for me, atwood is mythologizing the narrative and the narrator. he's gone from the pissed off guy in the forest to suddenly becoming ahab, pursing the great vision at any cost. what cost? atwood's environmentalism is well known. but you could go down the religious route with that what does it profit a man scenario. on the one hand you lose the environment and on the other you lose your soul. and then you're back to myth and that arthurian land is the king and the king is the land shenanigans.

and stanza 6. as if by magic now the narrator's noah (see bible above!). there's a deluge! and the log house is an ark! and, as predicted, here come the wolves! because, and this is important, the wolves are necessary. and he might have floated, really he might have. and again we're back to the environmentalism. but he doesn't float. because he's a dick. so certain of his certainties he can sink thru stone. except atwood isn't talking about the narrator now, she's taking a pop at all of us with all our certainties. she spiky that wee atwood woman.

stanza seven and she brings it all together. naming and  the naming of things? because this isn;t a poem about a man in a forest but a poem about language and how we make ourselves thru it. the wolves are there because they have to be there and because they remind us of that fact. and it's there that his beaches, his clearings are undone, all those certainties cleared away. and just in case we're still not getting it atwood highlights all the energy we put into maintaining these ideas, the tension between subject and object, the original opposition, the original binary tension. and then the whale returns and all that's left is us, like ishmael, bobbing about in the sea, floating on a coffin.

you can, if you were of a mind, find an echo of this in hg wells, not so giant a step given atwood's interest in science fiction - no way out or round or through (from mind at the end of its tether) - for an equivalent statement of pessimism. and it's  this that, for me. drives the poem. it's easy to stand on the outside of the poem, structure your criticism around the narrator in any way you choose but, in doing so, you're doing exactly the same. his green paper is your blank page, your blank screen. all these conclusions, everything you do, now and from now on are your attempts to stay the inevitable, when you too are overwhelmed. atwood doesn't suggest an alternative, there is no if only, only the futility of trying to project ourselves into something thru the vessel that is our language.

which gets you right back to the title and its progressive insanities. it seemed away back then that there was this guy, this pioneer if you like, and we could look at him and his funny ways, there were so many correlations we could make between him, the man, and the doings of men in the world. with each new piece of geometry, with each new certainty it also gets crazier, there's animals in the roof, plantlife overwhelming his crops and all this is going on and getting magnified in his head! he asserts, he names and the more he does it the more futile it becomes. and yet here we are doing exactly the same to this poem, attempting to impose some sort of order on it, square its circles, smooth out its rough edges until we can get a clear meaning out of it, until it's not this guy who's the pioneer but us and that unwritten paper is our lives.

which is why margaret atwood, for me, is such a kick ass poet. taking all the above and weaving into such a tiny, tense bundle, leaving it open to all that interpretation and yet, still pulsing with questions. now that's what poetry's all about. of course someone'll be along at some point complaining that it doesn't rhyme. that's okay. we're all pioneers here and at the end of the day, however different we do it, we're all just scratching in the dirt.

*i read this out to t because a) she wanted to know what all the typing was about and b) to see if i was blethering a lot of nonsense. she didn't see forest or wilderness at all but grassland

*i'm not in the habit of much in the way of punctuation on blogs. i'm lazy when it ocmes to the shift key

*this is not a pop at religion, more the habits of people. maintain a garden and i guarantee, within a very short space of time, you will develop some form of faith based belief in what does or does not make it grow. these things may not work. but you'll want them to. plus you'll very soon be able to see eveidence of your belief in all your growing things. the ringing of bells and chanting is a very distinct possibility!

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