Poetry as Haptic Art
“The skin is the oldest and the most sensitive of our organs. . .Touch is the parent of our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It is the sense which became differentiated into the others. . . .”
“The body image is informed fundamentally from haptic and orienting experiences early in life. Our visual images are developed later on, and depend for their meaning on primal experiences that were acquired haptically.”
Of the so-called five senses – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting – only the first two have been considered highly evolved enough to support one of the “fine arts.” And yet, for at least a couple of thousand years, physicians in China and other parts of the East have quietly continued to compile a tradition based upon the sense of touch – taking the pulse of their patients for diagnosis – and over time refining this practice into a haptic art.
Recently I was conducting a somewhat “haptic” experiment of my own with two tuning forks, and discovered to my surprise that there is more to this than listening, or even just hearing. Both vision and touch have vigorously inserted themselves into the experience.
As it turns out, Chinese physician Wang Xi in the 3rd century found the process of taking the pulse to be an extremely deep well, both semantically and experientially. He wrote a kind of user's manual to help guide his fellow practitioners through the various ways that the “mo” (term that means “the abode” or the “pathway” of the blood) declares itself to the extremely sensitized hands of the physician.
From a poet's point of view, Wang Xi's detailed instructions are like a whole body immersion into the precision of abstract terms and an affirmation of primal role of metaphor in human speech (see epigraphs above).
So, bear with me if you can, as I unspool the original “aha!” moment that allowed me to compare listening to a set of tuning forks with the act of “feeling” the human pulse.
I would like to offer a comparison between a single tone from a tuning fork, to the single “tone” that the blood makes inside its abode (mo ) when passing back and forth between heart and lungs, plying its daily task of keeping a single human being alive. Wang Xi made a list of 24 major variations in the nature of the pulse that Chinese physicians were feeling in their diagnoses. I will describe the first four and compare them with four impressions of an A-220 tuning fork when it is struck, then matched by a tuner or musician.
1. Floating mo: If one lifts the fingers, there is abundance; if one presses down one finds insufficiency.
1. Singing flat: Sometimes I sing out A-220 just as I'm banging the tuning fork on my knee, and get a perfect match between the two tones. But as I continue to do this simple imitation over and over, some ingredient of the two sounds is no longer there, and I am left singing slightly flat. I do not know how to prevent this.
2. Hollow mo: floating, large and soft; pressing down the center is vacuous and the two sides feel full.
2. Sometimes I am singing a correct A, matching my voice to the fork, yet I can “hear” a kind of segment split off from the tone, like bark peeling from its outermost self, so that the tone feels flat when it is still “true” by some more holistic standard. As if the tone is feeling its way into a future not yet realized.
3. Flooding mo: extremely large under the fingers.
3. The voice is thicker than the tuning fork. It has a tendency to melt into it or over it, or between or around – clinging, dripping, penetrating but never really matching.
4. Slippery mo: it comes and goes in fluid succession; similar to the rapid (#5)
4. What does the voice or instrument expect to happen, by imitating a tuning fork? For the two tones to match one another so closely as to be indistinguishable? Or rather, for them to complement one another like a kind of aural triangulation, a fuller steadiness than a single fork or voice can maintain? But even this – is not achievable.
Congratulations if you have read this far! Warning: I may continue in this vein (!) next month.
Poetry as Divine Madness
It took me years of writing poems before I dared to say “I am a Poet” (with a capitol 'P'). Not out of simple modesty was I holding back – but a deep respect for the art, and also a kind of mild terror (?) at what Poetry does to a poet.
For example: signing the I Am A Poet contract means you agree to the following:
Now you're good to go, having taken the vaccine that will allow you to function inside a state of Divine Madness without losing your mind. You will be able to sing out to whatever muse or divinity may be guiding your writing life:
As a rebellious teenager I read this and thought, “Wait a minute! 'fervor' and 'wonder' are already excessive. You mean Poetry teaches me how to be extreme on purpose without being accused of disobedience, lying or lunacy? Yes, and
Poetry eventually starts demanding you to live up to the part of the contract that says, “make use of this
wild excess you have agreed to nurture inside yourself.” As poet Roya Marsh says, dive deep for
And in a poem I've never finished, another reminder to Poets:
Light and Dark
Now that we are emerging from the darkness and silence imposed by COVID – it's easy to get a feeling of having been snatched up and set down on a stage as an actor in a huge drama of cosmic proportions – actually in it, and of it. More than ever, even as a poet, I find myself noticing light and dark, sound and silence as if they were persons, not just abstract terms, and also I keep feeling a need to re-define and re-connect these enormous ideas to one another by way of smaller things, just in case a more hopeful picture of the future will show itself.
All of 2020 and into 2021 has been at the very least a painful reminder of our relationship to sound and light. For awhile, “light” no longer seemed bearable in its old form. Here is Macbeth expressing fear of daylight:
And so, we did – scarf up. And close ourselves off from one another to the point of highest anguish and fury. We did not go gently into this night. We obeyed and disobeyed, like Adam and Eve who long ago were accused of a sin called “disobedience,” when they didn't even know what the word meant.
But surely we should have known more. Like Riddley Walker in Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic novel, we found a sudden desperate need to understand “nite” more fully again, in the way of our less “civilized” ancestors from the stone age:
Listening back to the wisdom of the stones, when humans carefully arranged them into geometric patterns that we intuitively felt as a way to connect ourselves to and mimic the larger cosmos. We were matter-of-factly taking on our assigned role to help keep the whole universe active and alive.
Here is James Richardson, from his 63-part poem The Encyclopedia of the Stones: #21
And from #6:
Swinburne Got Me Started: A Rhythmic Riddle
The oldest, most decrepit book on my poetry shelf is a collection of Swinburne I found in a used book shop when I was a teenager and my idea of poetry was language that galloped you to beautiful scenic places where love and adventure were abundantly available.
The book, for which I paid $1.00, was falling apart then, and still has not finished. As the Introduction says, “For sheer sensuous delight of singing, the pleasure of beautiful, fragrant words singing together, in a matchless harmony of music, Mr. Swinburne's poetry is unique in the English language.”
The poems were full of blood, sleep, death, but not much action, and a lot of moping about for no good reason. But one immediately caught and held my attention, even though I didn't know what the title meant. Here's the opening of that poem, “Hendecasyllabics,”
What a difference one syllable can make! Here you have fully ELEVEN of them per line instead of the usual ten that result from iambic pentameter. Not only does this poem kick the iamb and rhyme itself out the door, the “Deca” goes along with it, and you end up with a rhythm that turns the poet's word-hoard into a corral of restless stallions, eager to return to the wild. This one poem hooked me for the rest of my life, in a way that none had done before it. Besides, what a way to nail a sunset!
Here again is Swinburne – still sensuous and musical – offering a standard iambic pentameter poem:
The riddle: Can you feel the shift between ten and eleven syllables? Does it matter to you?
Here is an observation by Olivier Messiaen, composer of “Quartet for the end of time,” who could have been writing about poetry:
Swinburne, although scarcely read much today, may have been ahead of his time. I am grateful to
his particular poetic imagination.
“Nature is everywhere – so why even mention it?”
Poets have written a lot about this thing called “Nature.” Recently we have nudged “nature poetry” up a notch by calling it “eco-poetry,” and as such, given it a place the human arsenal of possible ways to fend off the Sixth Extinction. I offer here a wee spectrum of attitudes about what possible practical use “nature poetry” can offer our world. The first is my own wry response to Goldsworthy:
Even Wallace Stevens, who seems to live mainly inside his head, was passionate about the earth. “It's an illusion that we were ever alive,” he says, and his solution is to embrace the illusion head on and declare it to be a good thing – So, he suggests a way to resolve the paradox. If “rock” stands for “ultimate nothingness” then yes, nature covers the rock with flowers and leaves, which are impermanent. But contained within the nothingness of illusion is a cure, which he called “the cure of the ground” – (from “The Rock”):
So, he offers a compromise: the poem is the permanence, with its own “leaves,” and with
Again, I offer a lighter bulwark against nothingness, a flock of tiny birds:
And here is James Stephens in his wonderful fantasy novel The Crock of Gold – The speaker is The Thin Woman of Inis Magrath:
(Try it, next time you've conveniently worked yourself into a rage on a clear night when the moon is out.)
And finally, from native American poet Jennifer Elise Foerster:
*And speaking of abandonment, I am grateful to Erik Muller's recent book A New Text of the World: Ways of Looking at the Poetry of Wallace Stevens for drawing my attention again to Stevens, whom I long ago abandoned.
(Freddy the Pig)
This month I want to reinforce the cliché of Spring. It showed up again this year. We can watch from the sidelines, or jump right in.
In my front-yard garden a couple of Ravens are obviously going through their first year of nest-building. No need to switch on the television, just watch this lordly fowl pulling at a dry twig from a Curly Willow tree – the twig about 4 times his length and built like a bedspring. Nope, it won't disentangle itself from the twisted clot of other twigs, even when Raven turns on the full power of his stocky frame. (Yank! Yank! Wiggle! Wiggle!) Through the binoculars, I swear he looks bewildered. Eventually I watch (her/him) fly off with a much smaller bit sticking out both sides of his beak. Could there be a more efficient way to do this? Tradition be damned.
Here's lordly Greek poet Odysseus Elytis offering his support:
And in the latest issue of Emergence Magazine Jay Griffiths combines literature with science in a detailed rhapsody on the soil beneath and way-beneath our feet. The kind of essay that makes you feel totally nourished:
Don't forget to leave a little offering to Runcina, the Roman goddess of weeding.
Today the subject is "The Soul."
I've always had trouble distinguishing between "soul" and "spirit," and quotes like this can offer some help if this is also an issue for you.
I toss in as an afterthought, a chapter heading from Václav Cílek's To Breathe With Birds :
When I was 14 the world was still humming and burbling with romantic notions about my future:
Shakespearean actress, New York fashion model (I was skinny enough), ballet dancer, veterinarian (specializing in elephants), world traveler (possibly in a balloon?) architect, archaeologist, philosopher. . . .But meanwhile I kept making up (and writing down) my own versions stories about kids my age who had adventures in imaginary countries. And at about the same time --
I began collecting bits and pieces of other people's writings that intrigued me in some way -- lyrics from songs, lines from plays I was acting in, advertisements on billboards, lawn signs, comic books. I scotch-taped hundreds of these into loose-leaf notebooks which somehow survived through my late teens and into early adulthood until finally - -
I realized the decision about my romantic future had already been made for me: I was already exhibiting most of the weird behavior patterns -- I was a writer!
As you know, a huge part of being a writer is reading. Reading, memorizing, and if necessary copying stuff down by hand, balancing your notebook on your knee and pausing frequently to shake the cramp out of your writing hand. Not plagiarism. More like adding new rooms to your Treasure House of Ideas.
So, as an experiment, I offer you this opportunity to share from my rare, whimsical and carefully chosen hoard. Of --- what? Of fragments, segments of poems, comments from over the years, all of them at least trending towards literary, in the hope that you might paste some of them into your own Commonplace Book (physical or virtual). Each of them will be attributed. The ones I authored myself will simply say "me" afterwards. I'll post a new one roughly once a month.
If you feel the urge to respond to or to expand upon one or more of them, please do. At some point, if there's enough interest we could turn this into some sort of group conversation.
I'm calling it "The Poet's Petard," because of course there is a risk involved (heh heh).
So here goes the first one:
(quoted by Martha Grimes in her novel The Blue Last -- she says it was written on the wall of an Irish pub.)