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"Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself."

A Profound Lecture on the Ontology and Psychology of Writing

Gertrude Stein's lecture "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them," which she delivered at Oxford and Cambridge ca. 1935, is one of the most profound things I have ever read about writing. In it, Stein puts her finger, persuasively, on a fundamental difference between great writing--masterpieces, to use her word--and all other writing, however skilled.

It must be said, for the benefit of those who don't know Stein already, that her eccentric style--she is apparently allergic to commas--makes her lecture slightly irritating to read silently, at least at first. I mean it's sometimes not easy to make sense of her grammar unless and until you read it aloud, supplying the commas yourself. As she says of masterpieces, her lecture seems confused at first, but eventually becomes clear. And it is absolutely worth the effort.

Her ideas are challenging, too, but it helps to make sense of them when you realize that her idea of the creator of masterpieces is a lot like Keats's ideal, expressed in his letters, of the "chameleon poet." You may recall that Keats describes such a poet as a Shakespearean "poetical character" who has no identity of his or her own, but is continually entering in imagination into other characters and things, and taking part in their being. It's an ideal that Keats opposes to the Wordsworthian "egotistical sublime."

Stein's way of putting it is to suggest the writer has two selves: an eternal "you," the "entity" that creates, and a "you" that is merely one's identity, "you as your little dog knows you" as she rather charmingly puts it: that is, your identity as created by an audience, and even by your own memories. For Stein, it is this second you, this identity--this audience- and memory-induced self-consciousness--that stops the creation of masterpieces: "The second you are you as your little dog knows you you cannot make a masterpiece."

It is not that you can't write a masterpiece about your identity. In fact, she acknowledges that masterpieces are often concerned with identity and the memories that make up one's identity. It is just that "you do not remember yourself as you do create." In other words, "time and identity [are] what you tell about as you create[,] only while you create they do not exist."

As for why there are so few masterpieces: as Stein puts it, "Everything is against them." "There are so few of them because mostly people live in identity and memory that is when they think." The list of things that interfere with the creation of masterpieces is long: pleasure, pride, vanity, time, timeliness, history, memory, action, governing, necessity, audiences, human nature, indeed "everything that makes life go on."

But the most difficult thing about creating a masterpiece, Stein argues, is not so much escaping one's identity--as in T.S. Eliot, who wrote "Poetry . . . is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality"--but something more, what one might call, by way of analogy with Hindu or even esoteric terminology, a replacement of self-consciousness with Self-awareness. As Stein puts it,

It is not extremely difficult not to have identity but it is extremely difficult the knowing not

having identity. One might say it is impossible but that it is not impossible is proved by the

existence of master-pieces which are just that. They are knowing that there is no identity and

producing while identity is not.

That is what a master-piece is.

I explain this idea to my students, some of whom are athletes or musicians, in terms of achieving a flow state or "being in the zone." They understand that the hardest part is not so much getting into this state--though that can be challenging enough, especially for the inexperienced writer, or musician, or athlete--but recognizing that you're in this state and staying there. In this sense, it's not unlike a kind of advanced meditation. But, just as with meditation, or athletics, or musical performance, it gets easier and more effective with practice.

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  • James Pollock

hilaritas—a mixture of intellectual excitement and sheer aesthetic pleasure at a notable display of wit”

A Brief and Excellent Primer on the Tradition of Wordplay in Modern Poetry

Eleanor Cook is—along with Hugh Kenner and Northrop Frye—one of my favorite Canadian literary critics. Her books are goldmines of poetic technique. I want to especially recommend a short chapter in her 1998 book Against Coercion: Games Poets Play, called “The Poetics of Modern Punning.” This is the place to start for poets wanting to get oriented in the modern tradition of wordplay in poetry, a powerful source of pleasure for readers.

Cook sets to work describing what she calls the “standard” puns that, she argues, every good poet needs to be aware of. “What words,” she asks, “come with so venerable a history of paranomasia [that is, punning], that no self-respecting modern poet can use them without making choices? That is, poets may use these words if they wish, but they must decide what to do with the standard paranomasia.” The words she discusses are “turn” (and its relatives “trope” and “verse”); “leaves”; “room” (and its relative “stanza”); and “maculate” and “immaculate” (and their relatives “spotted” and “unspotted”). She also considers puns on punctuation marks; portmanteaus and neologisms; allusive puns; and etymological puns; and in the process she considers brilliant examples from Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens, especially, as well as from James Merrill, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and Lewis Carroll.

Like everything in poetics, engaging in wordplay (whether as reader or writer) is not so much a matter of inborn wit as simply knowing what you’re doing, and Cook’s essay will get you well-launched in this regard. Of course, it takes practice, but once you get thoroughly tuned in to this element of poetic technique, your pleasure in the poetry you read, and your control over your diction in your writing, will increase considerably.

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  • James Pollock

"'The meters are sacred power.'"

An Ecstatic Defense of "Absolute Literature"

Literature and the Gods is the Italian writer Roberto Calasso’s extraordinary defense of the autonomy of literature or, rather, of “absolute literature,” “a creature sufficient unto itself” whose telltale sign isn't theoretical but physical: literature "recognized by a certain vibration or luminescence of the sentence," "a shiver down the spine," a "horripilation," a "happiness of the hairs."

The exemplars of this literary aesthetic constitute a gloriously cosmopolitan (albeit andro- and Eurocentric) canon. Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Nabokov, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé come in for extended treatment, though Calasso also mentions, as allies, dozens of other writers from Proust and Tsvetaeva to Yeats and Calvino.

As the book’s title suggests, absolute literature is, above all, writing in which a reader may discern the presence of the gods, beings who in the modern world “manifest themselves . . . as mental events” or “epiphanies.” And whereas for Carl Jung “the gods have become diseases,” for Calasso, “literature can become an effective stratagem for sneaking the gods out of the universal clinic and getting them back into the world.”

The most exciting part of Calasso’s book for me, as a poet, is the chapter called “Meters are the Cattle of the Gods,’” named after a phrase from the Vedic Satapatha Brahmana that Calasso calls “the premise” of Vedic ritual and philosophy. To explain what this surprising metaphor means, he recounts an astonishing ancient Indian myth of poetic metre (here I switch to the Canadian spelling) that has profoundly influenced the way I think of prosody.

The story begins with Prajapati, the Progenitor “out of whom the gods themselves sprang.” (Prajapati resembles Blake’s Giant Albion, from whom emerge the four Zoas and their emanations and spectres.) Calasso, quoting from the Taittiriya Samhita, describes Prajapati conducting the primordial Vedic rite:

"Prajapati constructed the fire; it was keen-edged as a razor; terrified, the gods would not come near; then, wrapping themselves in the meters, they came near, and that is how the meters got their name. The meters are sacred power; the skin of the black antelope is the form of sacred power; he puts on shoes of antelope skin; not to be hurt, he wraps himself in meters before approaching the fire."

Since men imitate the gods, this wrapping oneself in the metres is what “any priest, any man” did in chanting the Vedic hymns. And, for Calasso, today, it is also what “consciously or otherwise, every poet, every writer does when he writes.”

The metres are thus protection against death or psychic injury in the dangerous work of approaching the sublime. But they are also a vehicle for journeying to heaven. They are a yoke (that is, a yoga, or discipline) that binds the mind and the word together while keeping them distinct: “Only thus can [the word] reach the heavens, like a female creature covered in bird feathers. And only thus can it make the return journey from heaven to earth.” In fact, the metres, these female creatures covered in bird feathers, are nothing less than life-giving gods themselves, and accordingly each Sanskrit metre has its own divine name.

The metres are always in danger, however, of becoming worn-out by their use in hymns and ceremonies. Indeed, “the strength of the meters was exhausted by the gods, because it was through the meters that the gods reached the heavens.” This is why metres require the rapture of divine inspiration to revive them; otherwise they would remain inert.

The most crucial--and to me, exciting--inference to be drawn from Calasso’s account of this Vedic myth of the metres is that prosody is itself a technique of inspiration; in fact, this, for me, is what it means to say that metre is a vehicle for approaching the gods. (I discuss this subject at length in my essay "The Art of Poetry," which you may find in my book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada.) Certainly we could not be further from Ezra Pound’s misleading metaphor that likens metre to a mere “metronome,” a trope that was to have far-reaching effects, both creative and destructive.

There is much more to say about Calasso’s book, but this is a recommendation, not an essay, so let me break off here with a suggestion that you find a copy and read it for yourself.

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