The Poetics of DetourBy Wendy Chin-Tanner
June 25, 2010
In the interests of candor, I should preface this review by stating that Nancy White was a beloved and formative teacher of mine when I was a student in the 1990s at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. It was in her class that it first seemed possible to make a place for oneself in the world through the written word. Nancy and I reestablished contact only a few months ago and I was sorry to hear of the difficulties she had endured in the time that had passed, but it would be no exaggeration to say that from the compost of misfortune grew an amazing thing: a book of poems called “Detour.”
The poem “Woven and Sewn” opens this collection with a surprising and arresting tough-love invocation: “You are no virgin listen. You must stop here.” This voice is both contemporary and timeless, assured and experienced, with its second person address aimed as much at the poet herself as to the reader. This dialogue exhorts us to take heed, to “Sit down,” for there are important things to be read.
White’s voice here sets the tone for the rest of the collection in which virtually every poem is spoken in the second person, an affect that results in an immediate, intense, and sustained identification between reader and poet. The use of the second person in place of the poetic “I” serves to mediate the potential of a solipsistic or journal-entry quality in such an introspective and domestic narrative. Instead, White transcends the confessional and succeeds in gathering and inviting a sense of the universal, of reciprocal alterity; a sense of the recognition of the other that is oneself.
As is suggested by the circuitous implication of the title, the narrative of “Detour” follows a non-linear path that mirrors that of the psychoanalytic process. The structure of the book, divided into three parts – “Smoke,” “Solid,” and “No Sequel” – moves from the cataclysmic events leading to divorce to an unsentimental review of childhood where a revised understanding and reclamation of the self takes place before returning to a present that readdresses what has come to pass on different and farther-seeing terms. Based perhaps on the credence that the only way out is through, “Detour” describes a kind of map of the internal processes necessary in the evolution of the psyche after your world has been shattered and ultimately answers the question: How do we express personal transformation in poetic terms?
“Poetry is a form of courage” which is the “ability to do something that frightens one, for one’s choices can’t be about being afraid,” says Joan Retallack. Similarly, Charles Bernstein speaks of an “aversive poetics” in which “mental fright” is the “place where poetry begins.” We hear this starting point of fear in “Propeller” where:
you don’t know don’t know
because all of this so far is mostly made of fear
As with “Propeller,” in many of the poems, the rawness of emotion is undercut by an adherence to and innovation of form. Replete with fresh turns of phrase, syntax, and construction, they showcase a delight in words and a playfulness of language, music, and line. There is also strong evidence of a sharp wit and an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Thirst,” “Honest,” The Drinkers,” “Your Life Has Stood,” “Look Up,” “Tide Going Out,” “You Remember How a Voice,” “Your Mother Starts Talking,” “Ceremony for Coming of Age,” and “After Detour,” for example, are full of surprising linebreaks and/or parenthetical clauses that create a sometimes discordant, sometimes syncopated visual and musical experience that mirrors the interjections of the mind when one’s thoughts become at once repetitive and scattered.
In “Reflection in a Hard Surface,” these techniques describe the devastating guilt of an imagined complicity in one’s own betrayal, of not knowing better, of expecting to have known better:
not you (no one) he
lied to you them us her and the you you
were isn’t now so who
listened who ate
the bait who let it into the
ear like a drop of warm oil did it ease
something there where we had hardened did we
store his lie down in red coils did the hue of our
listening reach for him to tell it (the story) again (the story)
welcome and annihilating did we assist did we assist weren’t we there
“Grasslands,” bearing echoes of e.e. cummings, but with a sharper edge of melancholy, knowingness, and reflectiveness, demonstrates how White’s voice is more modernist than postmodern. The use here of the phatic function, or verse equivalence, with its disruption of non-verbal utterance, is at once amused, musing, and deathly serious:
you force the car
fast on the oiled road
narrowing like love become
useful but you
are fruitful pining
magic as a frying pan
smear harden on the windshield
In such poems as “Beauty,” however, we glimpse a more unadulterated rawness that is nonetheless controlled by the freshness and rigor of its form. Neither shying away from the hard facts, nor dwelling on the pain of them, “Beauty” demonstrates a trust in the reader that allows for the revelation of vulnerability. The vulnerability here lies in the specificities, just as the devil is in the details, and it is through the microscope of such detail that the simultaneity of the particular and the universal in such a loss is conveyed:
… his neck smelling of
narcissus his lack of hangnails his laugh like
a landmine such intention
of goodness his appearance golden his
tantrums his silence frozen after fine sex
cordial after bad his beauty his
beauty his darkness is love
In “Summer,” White’s sense of irony and humor, her tendency to not take herself too seriously emerges and yet it is not lost on the reader that what is happening here is deeply serious as well as utterly human. Describing how one grows accustomed to certain habits of emotion, it begins with a meditation on the sadness of premature endings:
Today the sun is out which is sad.
Trees sad when rustling and when still.
Leaves that drop in July. When the lilies
open their widest, it is sad to be
alone in the house…
The poem builds to reveal that:
… It is sad that he slept
with those women, some of whom you
also fed at that table. Discussing it,
civilized, was sad, and the climb up
again and again to start over…
And later, White writes:
You think, when you feel it return,
how loyal sadness is, how accustomed you are,
spreading its folds about you.
This ladylike image of sadness as a skirt spread around you, its politeness and primness, not only convey the awareness that such habits of thought are possible to change, but it does so with White’s keen, wry sense of humor lurking beneath.
And in “Your Father, Your Son,” White attempts to debunk gendered socializations as she tries to claim for herself “the fine foul language of his big male freedom,” to redress the dominance of maleness in pursuit of a big female freedom despite fears and expectations.
What is so appealing here goes beyond a mastery of craft and technique to something more essential: present in “Detour” is a sincere argument in favor of exploring the subjectivity of personhood that speaks to the importance of the evolution of a singular unique self. The elucidation of this painfully hard-won process in the poetry of “Detour” becomes an act of courage, compassion, and feminism.
White has a gift for putting disparate things next to one another in a kind of ontological plurality – different modes of language and different modes of abstraction. But the stylistic diversity is held together by an embodied, intensely physical and sensual urgency where each emotion is fully rendered and felt. It is this profound humanness and humanity that allow for the strong sense of satisfaction and poetic concretion with which “Detour” leaves the reader.
To that end, we see in the final chapter, as in “They Ask You About Middle Age,” the growth on an assertive hopefulness in the idea of harvest and the ripeness of personal maturity:
Soft, barely believable mornings (and other sweet
fruits) do grow.
And the final poem, “Below the Lifeboat” shows us what can happen after going through the process, the promise of becoming “unified” “after detour.”
We featured Nancy White here on TNB in March.
Poem, “The Water Said:” http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/nwhite/2010/03/the-water-said/
When I met Nancy at TNBLE, around AWP in Denver this year, I told her that the work of hers I’d read on TNB reminded me of WC Williams. I agree some of these snippets you quote have a cummings touch. Pretty good company indeed!
I hope I don’t seem obsessive on the point when I respond to:
“putting disparate things next to one another in a kind of ontological plurality – different modes of language and different modes of abstraction”
So a syntactical as well as ontological plurality? And then to that I suppose you have to consider the visual element. Though, to be frank, I’ve struggled a bit to reconcile the visual structure into the communication of the snippets you post (I know I need to read the whole thing in context).
Bu anyway, different modes of language certainly brings to mind cummings, and different modes of abstraction Williams (of Patterson) but I immediately wonder if that’s regress to “big male freedom,” which, accompanied by a fat wink, isn’t an alien concept for those two.
And finally, I just wanted to confirm the bit you considered phatic in “Grasslands.” Is it the “see how”? I guess I read that more as particle than phatic. My immediate thought is that the whole thing is too urgent for any appendix. And that’s not to quibble, but it really struck me that some of the moves Nancy makes there an be interpreted rather flexibly.
Thank you, Uche – a lively discussion on poetics is a great pleasure to engage in.
By ontological plurality, I meant to imply the existence in Nancy’s work of the idea that there are many minds within one world, and that this is where in her work, poetics seeks to go beyond its limitations. And I propose that she suggests this endeavor through her experimentation with mixing many tools from her poetic toolkit – syntactical, visual, and otherwise.
It’s true that to post mere excerpts does not do justice to the careful structure of the narrative as a whole, but rather than concentrate on a practical criticism or close readings of specific poems, I intended instead to say more about the emotive sum of the book’s parts while giving a flavor of individual pieces. Perhaps I should have excerpted more extensively.
I actually considered the phatic element in “Grasslands” to be “pow,” the disruptive moment of the insect splattering against the windshield becoming indistinguishable from the disruption of thought.
You are right that interpretation is flexible – that is the beauty of poetry, isn’t it? There are a multiplicity of truths and no definitive answers.
as a lyricist, I am very interested in exploring poetics…can you suggest an online resource that would serve a novice?
Hmm, I don’t actually know of any offhand, but I’ll bet our illustrious editor does. So I shall respectfully defer this question to him. Uche?
dwoz, well, I certainly have ideas, but I also have pretty hefty biases, and I’d want to be mindful of those. Can you just briefly throw out some of the aspects of poetics that intrigue you? What areas seem to you most fruitful to explore? It might also help to get a sense of what, if anything, you enjoy reading in poetry.
If I don’t miss my guess, the focus of poetics is rather analogous to the focus of functional harmony to music? A sort of lexical-semantic organization or structure that informs the meaning? (or at the very least, exposes the devices?)
And it seems that the empiricism of it further supports the analogy?
To me, writing lyrics is about creating a phrasing structure that is cross-cut with emphatic pivots (or closures), perhaps with a prosidic aspect, but certainly one in which the ebb and flow of reason and meaning are under specific control.
Being able to drape a meta-structural analysis over that would probably help to lend support to the intuitive and help identify strong patterns. But, currently being unaware of any of those meta-structural semantics leaves me disadvantaged in leveraging them!
does that help?
sorry, typo. “Prosodic”
I’m not familiar with functional harmony. Poetics is largely about exposing the devices, as you nicely put it, and it can be empirical, or subject to rather elaborate systems.
I think in this reply you’ll get an idea of the diversity of poetics, and a sense of why I was hoping to narrow things down.
For Western poetry, and even in much Islamic poetry, Aristotle’s Poetics is the foundation. He synthesized a lot of work on poetry and drama (it’s really about both, which were quite closely coupled in his day) into a very systematic treatise. Now that’s certainly no starting point for a beginner, and I’m an anti-Aristotelian in most things, but I think at some point everyone really interested in poetics needs to study that work.
Shelley set the Renaissance tone from the English perspective brilliantly in A Defence of Poetry, which I also find to be essential reading, if not as a first stop.
I also highly recommend a Renaissance Rhetoric handbook, because those combine the best of Greek and Latin rhetorical systems with emerging new-Humanist work from the continent, leading to a rich treasure trove of figures of speech. That said, one of my favorite volumes is the pre-Renaissance Ars Versificactoria. I’m struggling to find a good Renaissance alternative via Google that’s not bound up in some larger Humanist work. I’ve been playing with the idea of a very highbrow TNB piece about the importance of Renaissance Humanist rhetoric for everything from Shakespeare to Hip-Hop, and I guess this might be my excuse to really dig into that.
Anyway, it gets muddy after all that, because it becomes a matter of intense personal preference. Hugh Kenner is probably my favorite 20th centure book-length critic, and I think his books on Eliot (The Invisible Poet, I think) and Pound The Pound Era are excellent introductions to modern Poetics that are as useful and engaging for the novice as for the expert.
My own bias is that form is essential in poetics, even if the main consideration is departure from form. As such I cannot recommend highly enough Lew Turco’s Book of Forms, and of course he happens to be the feature poet this week. His Weblog is a good ongoing and interesting resource.
Overall though, as perhaps you can tell by now I don’t have a lot of novice material near at hand. I’ve never taught poetry, and I taught myself poetics as a teen from fairly hard-core sources. Maybe rather than a broad work on poetics, you might look for a good volume that analyzes a particular poet you like. That way you’ll work into things by focusing on the sort of verse you already enjoy.
Thank you, Uche!
Very VERY good start for me!
As a songwriter, I’m constantly searching around for more ways to implement tension and closure, beyond rhyme.
The song structure is tightly bound to constrained forms…having to live within the musical meter, or at the very least, allude to it. Cadence and phrasing are critical, and so having a basis for analyzing and discussing forms is very useful. Interestingly, the songwriting/lyric writing classes I attended in music school didn’t seem to bother much with poetics, in fact I don’t ever recall hearing the word mentioned.
I very much appreciate you taking the time for that reply.