Tuesday, January 1, 2013

G. C. Waldrep on "The Wilder Shores of Love"

The title comes from Lesley Blanch (her 1954 book of the same name) by way of two eponymous Cy Twombly paintings from 1984-85, one of which I viewed at MoMA in December 2011. Twombly is a poet’s artist, by which I mean a visual practitioner who convokes a poet’s sense of constellation and intuitive gesture. It’s not an accident that he, like Joseph Cornell—that other consummate poet’s artist—often included texts in his artworks, phrases, names, bits of ambient myth. I was taken by surprise by Twombly’s midsummer death a few months before, in spite of his advanced age; we shared a home state and landscape, and somehow I always thoughts our paths would cross in person.

Most of my poetic practice is intuitive, and this poem is no exception: I simply sat down on the evening of 12/5/11 (having recently seen the artwork and been thinking about Twombly) and typed it out, almost as you now read it. Some poems are gifts. Revision, for me, is largely a process of re-vision, of trying to understand what such first drafts are doing, or trying to do, and nudging them more securely in those directions. What follows, then, is retrospective, although all these thoughts were in my mind as I reread and tweaked the poem over the past year:

The poem began as a straightforwardly ekphrastic response to Twombly’s work and universe, especially his large-scale, mid-career paintings. But the turn began, as it so often does, with that “you”—Twombly, presumably, in line 6, but then in line 7 we discover it’s the polis that is speaking, addressing . . . who, exactly? Twombly? The poet? The reader? The dead?  By line 13 the “you” has shifted into the register of the contemporary demotic, has even donned the glad rags of the “I”; capitalism has intruded into the intimate space of the speaker and his foil, which is also the space between the poem and the reader. What “felt like a giant / radio . . . ascending / and descending”? Capitalism? History? Art? Death? All of the above?

When they first read the poem, BPJ editors Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald had questions about the syntactical slippage in the closing lines, which I confessed was intentional, if (I hoped) gentle. Yes, hands full of "strontium, iridium" as well as "little fossil patterns." It's not grammatically clear whether "reciting Keats" refers to something the "we" has its hands full (of), or something the "we" is doing while having its hands full (of other stuff), or even that it's actually the little fossil patterns that are doing the reciting. I wanted that last bit of slippage in particular, because it subtly links the "we" back to being "little fossil patterns." Since the "we" is in fact in the past tense, a relationship that has slipped away in time, this seemed elegiac and appropriate.

Both strontium and iridium can be radioactive or non-radioactive. I intended the radioactive allusion, as well as the pun on iridium vis-à-vis the visual faculty. Both are ingredients in so-called "dirty bombs." Some minerals kill us; some don't. And some minerals are in fact the bodies of the dead: fossil patterns do form in the shale patterns amid coal seams, as well as within coal seams themselves (anthracite or bituminous). "Anthracite" is the reference here not only for the sound and the pun on "anthro-" but also to Emily Dickinson’s 422.

I think Keats is meant here as a palliative or antidote, perhaps ineffective; the poem ends before establishing whether Keats cures anything (as do, alas, our lives: see Twombly, Cy).

Finally, I intended the extra-grammatical moves in the closing lines to echo the extra-grammatical moves of the first sentence (disguised within the "sometimes . . . sometimes" parallelism). This is a slippery, friable landscape—a confirming disquiet, which is also what I feel when I meditate on Twombly’s enormous, myth-driven canvases. The idea that Keats could exist without us, after we are dead, is terrifying—and the certainty of it even more so.


  1. It seems to me that this is a poem you can’t talk about because it already talks about itself so much all you can do if you want to respond is write another poem that talks like it – as G.C.Waldrep himself does in his introduction. His definition of a “poet’s artist,” for example, is a poem in itself which, if one were to respond, would require another equally intricate, ungrammatical, antidotic creation as its canvas, or vise-versa, to unscramble it.

    I’m not sure this is a criticism or a paean of praise – just as I’m not sure there is anyone left in the world that finds a poem of Emily Dickinson just as ‘difficult’ as this poem but who never loses the conviction that Emily Dickinson is trying her best to be as clear as she possibly can about things that are supremely difficult to say as well as supremely important. I also suspect I may be the only person left in the world who thinks it’s important for a poem to have something to say beyond just the saying, and that what G.C.Waldrep calls tweaking, whether “revision” or “re-vision,” ought to nudge a poem toward the reader as well as toward the apotheosis — and yes, “more securely in those directions,” I would most certainly agree.

    Successful revision should deepen a poem and clarify it at the same time, it seems to me. I make as a rule for myself in my writing that if any revision is no better than what I’ve already got, and especially if it reinforces some kink in the poems structure that I already know is self-serving and perhaps even a short-circuit, I reject it — or at least I reject it as soon as I can see it which sometimes takes me a long, long time, like years!

    For this reason I have problems with G.C.Waldrep’s admission in his last paragraph — “I intended the extra-grammatical moves in the closing lines to echo the extra-grammatical moves of the first sentence (disguised within the "sometimes . . . sometimes" parallelism).” Why do we need the made-up word “extra-grammatical” here, and how can there be “parallelism” when there are only 2 little words consisting of 5 characters between them?

    It is a good poem, and it grows on me, I admit, but is this really how we have to talk about it?

    Christopher Woodman

  2. I’ve been reading this poem and the poet’s introduction to it for a week now, and for what it’s worth here’s my present take on it.

    Yes, it is a good poem alright, but it’s also a relatively simple one. That may be why the grammatical “slippage” feels a bit clumsy. The poem isn’t really multifarious enough to support so many wonky wheels -- and I mean wonky wheels in the same sense as Cy Twombly’s signature smudges (see in particular around the word “of”).

    The apparent complexities of “On the Wilder Shores of Love” are mostly in the commentary, I would say, much of which is like a false scent leading the hounds away from the trail as the poem escapes through the thickets. Or another angle on that -- it’s as if the commentator were afraid that the pursuing reader might actually be on the trail of the poem so he walks down the middle of the stream, splashing about with critical acumen in order to leave no footprints at all.

    Much of the imagery in the poem is surrealist, of course, as are both the words and the images in Cy Twombly’s paintings, and we can take pleasure in that as well, generating our own private excitements along the way. On the other hand, the overall mood of the poem is edgy, and the message is more about the fear of being understood than the fear of death. Fair enough again – it’s a great subject for poetry.

    It would be interesting to examine such images as the “bedding,” the “glass precipice,” and the “giant radio,” in this context. And speaking of Emily Dickinson again, almost every other poem she wrote dealt with the existential riddle that G.C.Waldrep poses at the end of his introduction. One could go back and have a look at how Emily Dickinson deals with such mysteries without any critical apparatus at all, or even being published.

    And needless to say, I’m writing this in the shadow of G.C.Waldrep’s preface, and I do accept the criticism that my take on the whole thing probably says more about me than it does about the poem.


    P.S. One of the things I like about John Ashbery is that he so rarely comments on his poems. They are what they are even when they aren’t.

  3. Dear G.C.Waldrep,
    I do hope you don’t feel that my comments about your poem and your preface to it have been disrespectful. Indeed, I have spent a lot of time with your “On the Wilder Shores of Love” as well as with Cy Twombly’s painting upon which it is based, and am very grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to try out a few stunts of my own as I jump off your 100 meter high spring-board.

    Poetry is dangerous, like real life – I am sure you will agree with that. Keats gave us the opportunity to participate in his own even higher dive, of course, and he died, some say, as a result of negative criticism in mid air. I don’t personally agree with that, but I do agree that he lived more dangerously than most people, and by so doing “still lives,” as you say, because his poetry is so “alive” -- as we all know who hoped hers was too, and is.

    I think the most positive thing I said about your poem was that your introductory words help it to go on living in the thickets and in the end leave no footprints at all. Indeed, talking about poems can do that, as so much talk has made great poems out of some tiny little ones that, left to their own devices, wouldn’t even have stood up what is more walked, like “In a Station of the Metro” or “The Red Wheelbarrow.” In my own humble way, I hope my words have helped to do the same for “On the Wilder Shores of Love,” a poem that I would never have noticed if you hadn’t pushed me off your own platform at such preposterous height.

    My feeling is that such a Forum should help us all to take such risks, and my worry is that nobody else here seems to care much for jumping.

    Is that wrong?

    Christopher Woodman

  4. I enjoyed reading this poem, both in its simplicity (total of 7 sentences) and its complexity (the shifting “you”; the meaning of the metallic elements, etc). Two phrases in particular caught my attention and admiration: Lines 5 & 6: “the rugged surface of Greek / myth” and lines 9 – 11 “the little ships / the autumn leaves level / into history’s maw.”

    The second phrase strikes me as amusing because both “leaves” and “level” can be either verb or noun. The meaning does not change significantly because in both cases the little ships of people are flattened out as they enter the mouth of history. However, the playfulness of that word combination makes me smile. I also relished saying the whole sentence aloud because of the assonance of “lonely,” “polis,” “little,” “leaves,” and “level.”

    The first phrase, however, is the one that has kept my mind busy. I grew up learning the Greek myths through D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d'Aulaire and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire. The “rugged surface” seems an apt description of how the Greek gods interacted with each other and with the Greek people. The gods were at times passionate, violent, vigorous, rough and ready – in other words full of emotions. The myths themselves are multilayer in meaning; that idea is carried out with the use of the word “surface,” which implies the existence of its opposite, perhaps “depth,” or “subterranean,” or “subsurface.” The richness of the phrase “rugged surface of Greek / myth” caused me to read and re-read the first six lines of the poem over and over. The fact that G.C. Waldrop was inspired by the artwork of Cy Twombly adds another dimension of life to that specific phrase (Waldrop: “The poem began as a straightforwardly ekphrastic response to Twombly’s work and universe, especially his large-scale, mid-career paintings.”).

    Thank you for this poem.

  5. Thanks, Gwenn and Christopher, for your comments. And no, Christopher, of course I'm not offended! The truth is I often--if not quite always--struggle with what to say "about" a poem, because I've always felt that a successful poem has already said pretty much everything the author has to say, in the event and within certain formal constraints. I struggled with BPJ editor Lee Sharkey's assignment and wound up falling back upon my answers to some of her questions about the poem's inner workings. I rarely talk about my own poems in this way, at least in public (something my friend Dana Levin has chided me on; committing public acts of poetics is apparently part of the American poet's Good Citizenship Contract). "How we talk about it" is a matter for readers and critics--mostly I enjoy listening.

    I like your equation of revision as a clarifying and deepening exercise--that's certainly my aspiration (allowing for the fact that one poet's clarifying may be another poet's deepening, etc.). As for the "slippage": that was organic to the poem in its first draft (if I did not make that clear), perhaps as an artifact of compression, lyric and conceptual. In revision I spent a great deal of time trying to understand *why* that slippage occurred--in the compositional event--as well as how it worked in the poem as I was coming to understand it. I actually agree with you that this is "a relatively simple" poem; the "slippage" is, perhaps, an organic flaw, a ripple of compression scars in the lyric language, something like craquelure in a glaze. But this is retrospective analysis, true to the fabric of the poem but not to the initiating event.

    I had no idea I, or we, or the poem were heading towards Keats when I was drafting it. Keats was a surprise, especially since he is not one of my masters, not a poet I read with sustained pleasure. Most of my own thinking about the poem since I finished revising it has been less about its linguistic fabric, or the Twombly painting (although I love it), or mythology than about what Keats (by way of his poems) is doing here. I expect I will be thinking about that for another few years, as I am a slow thinker, and Keats...well, Keats casts a long shadow.

    Perhaps that's what every memorable poem does: cast a shadow, make a little interruption of the light. We blink, and then we can see again, but everything is different, in subtle ways.

    --G.C. Waldrep

  6. Thanks for that, G.C.Waldrep.

    You disown Keats appearance in this poem, almost as if he were an intrusion, but of course the lovers in the poem have their hands full of a lot of things you wouldn't normally want to carry around with you. And the interesting thing is that you, G.C.Waldrep, the poet, make a point that in real life you don't usually walk around with Keats either. So in fact his appearance in the poem is a kind of double negative -- which means he really doesn't belong anywhere.

    I think what Keats stands for that is really unique in poetry is his commitment to Beauty on the one hand and his success at creating Immortal Beauty on the other -- has anybody ever done that better, or died so quickly while doing it? And that's equally true of the "wilder shores of love," isn't it, that there is no experience on earth more saturated with the sense of permanence than that sort of love, yet no experience that will so surely turn out to have been an illusion (love the giant radio ascending and descending!)?

    Sort of like God, and why he has to be dead. But of course we want to walk there anyway, like the lovers in the poem, even with our hands full of such deadly stuff. And I mean walk with God in our hands.


    Forgive me for yet another riff -- but I think riff-talk is where a discussion of a poem like this has to go. Because in a sense this sort of poem is just a musical instrument -- it can make beautiful music but only if you know how to play it, and to play this one you have to know how to talk about it professionally, which means many years of hard practice in a demanding school, a music stand before you, silence, a varnished floor with a Persian carpet and vines growing up the wall. So the process is not quite as "intuitive" as you, G.C.Waldrep, would like it to be. Indeed Keats is far more intuitive as a poet -- or John Clare, who knew nothing.

    I think you mean accident more than intuitive -- and fair enough, that's what the smudge is around "of" in Cy Twombly's painting too. What such a painter has to do is make use of his own clumsiness, in a sense, and when a painter with genuine integrity does that consistently we are often seized by the genius of it, even when we can't explain what it means. Ordinary people like me tend to clean up their messes instead of gaping at them down on our hands and knees.

    Hope that helps -- if it doesn't, forget it.

    And of course many thanks to Gwenn too. Having grown up with Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire is such a great blessing because lithography is a smudgy art too. And how those stories do transform our childhoods, and make artists and lovers out of us all!


  7. This is for you, Gwenn, a response to your wonderfully nuanced explorations of the words “rugged” and “surface” that are just as good as the poem itself -- and that’s a real compliment to G.C.Waldrep as well as to you!

    Perfection like the right angle is as dead as God, who almost never appears in nature if you look at it candidly. What a shock it is to discover that our own noses are not in the middle of our faces, for example, and that even our eyes aren't where they ought to be, or see the things we think they see. Falling in love is another thing we do on the wilder shores beside handling strontium, iridium and Emily Dickinson, and yes, we do recite Keats at the same time even if we can't hear the words over the blast of the local radio while clicking on the beauty of nature on our tablets trekking to the source of the life-giving waters of the Bagmati – “the Ganges of Nepal,” as The Lonely Planet puts it, and equally an ecological disaster.


    I really do like this poem, G.C.Waldrep, and appreciate more and more the tricks it can do almost in spite of itself, wonky wheels, false scents, slippage and all. And ditto the tricks of the commentator, by the way, the splashy critical acumen of the poet, the critics, the editors, Gwenn, me, and whoever's coming in next.

    Which is what a poem like this one is about, isn’t it? Self-referential, it doesn’t ask you to look back at your relationship with your parents, terrorism, race, sexuality, or anything that matters, we say. Just itself. And that matters.