Violence in Poetry: Where Things Fall Apart

If you think I don’t know I have issues, you’re wrong. But as my friends Maddie and Sam can tell you, you’re lucky if you can see beauty in everything. And one thing I’ve always found beautiful is artful violence. A couple of years ago, I prepared for my poetry class by going on a little rant. It’s appropriate now because I’m going to try to remember and recite this poem, “The Second Coming”, by WB Yeats, en la clase manana. Here you go.

I shall try to reconstruct: a few years ago – time flies! – seven or eight years ago – I was presenting a session on writing assessment at the annual conference of the Connecticut Conference of Teachers of English (not that I’m some recognized expert in the field, but if you know how these things work, you know that the organizers sometimes scramble for presenters). After I had finished my spiel, I had time to attend someone else’s, so I decided to go to a teaching/writing poetry session, as poetry was even more mysterious to me at the time.

I had high hopes, and while I went through it in a spirit of cooperation, I was nagged by a sense that it was all bullshit. The presenter was a teacher from Lyme or Saybrook or one of those coastal towns. First, he went through some exercise I could never do, but which had some profound effect on some lines that James and Joanna wrote. It was all very English Journaly.

Then came the part that I was most interested in, the part that left me most deflated: the part when he talked about writing poetry. I don’t know where he started, but I know when I wished I could have found a polite way to leave. He located himself in his solarium, surrounded by clichés of flowers and tea and other accoutrement conducive to writing bullshit poetry. Then he proceeded to act out his vowel sound making noises – elongated OOOOOOs and UUUUUUUs that were designed to evoke feelings of melancholy; IIIIIIs and EEEEEEs to induce joy.

Now I’ve re-read Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry, so I understand the fundamentals of sound relative to content, but I could never imagine myself ooh-ooh-aahing to inspire a feeling, or to sharpen my own sense of an experience. The words for the feelings already exist; if you make it your mission to faithfully communicate the content, you’ll find the words that already contain the sounds. I know what was missing from that discussion of poetry that day: the violence, the energy, the force that makes someone want to journey with you in your poem.

Let me clarify what I mean by violence. Force and energy create some kind of violence, an effect that challenges the self or the will and changes the shape of a thing to make an impact you’re likely to remember. I may forget being moved by something like watching little Kate win her first ever swimming race, but tell me that acts of violence are easily forgotten and I’ll call you something verbally violent.

I’ll use a great poem as an example of what I mean by violence.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart: the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Such violence so suddenly: the bird of prey, the unraveling of order, anarchy with its baggage of disorder and the resultant blood on the tide, right-minded men who are weak and strong men blinded by their passions. And then the transition to the ultimate violence: the apocalypse.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight:

Let me pause mid-line to appreciate the violence. First, Revelation, with its incomprehensible Nostradamian gobbledygook of this transitional part of the poem takes us from the contemporary violence of Yeats’s Rising Ireland and connects it simultaneously backward to Biblical times and forward to the End of Days (how unpleasant). The transition takes us to another set of birds almost frantic in a place of former glory and utter destruction.

Somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

Its gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Around this sphinx reel shadows, shapes without substance, the things that pass for souls in Dante’s Inferno, not the birds themselves. These shadows are reeling, which can be suggestive of a circular pattern, an energetic dance, and what happens to a fighter after he has absorbed a heavy blow. More anger and predation: indignant desert birds, a lion-man. And now my favorite transition in all poetry:

The darkness drops again.

I mean, talk about words that sound like what they say – those low syllables come dropping down on the poem, a four word sentence that scares all the reeling and turning and general chaos with its understated authority.

And then the sounds of the poem’s ending, the S’s and the CK’s, sharpen its conclusion and carry the last sound back to the first in born/turn, reinforcing the cyclicality of the gyre and unifying contemporary and historical violence with the mystery of redemption or destruction.

But now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

 

So take your vocal exercises and your tea and your solarium to some writer’s workshop where people like the idea of being a writer and leave the rest of us to whatever it is we do to try to make sense of our nightmares. In another poem, Yeats writes that “in dreams begin responsibilities;” the writer’s responsibility is expression of manifest content, not contrivance masquerading as expression.

Geez, seven, eight years later, and I’m clearly still pissed off. I need a hobby.

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