Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Cole Swensen: Ours

Norman comments on that last scattered post:
it seems odd that the distinguished biographer of Louis Zukofsky [who? – oh, me – "distinguished"?!?] has overlooked Z's emphasis on pleasure, as in "the test of poetry is the pleasure it affords..." Is all this concern about getting everything listened to or read some sort of post-Protestant guilt? Some sense that one's dealings with the arts mandates strenuous labor? Related to this, I am reminded that somewhere in the tomes of Harold Bloom, he talks about poets (and by extension, critics) sacrificing lesser pleasures for greater (more severe, more harassing) ones. Well, OK--but only up to a point. I mean, I need to finish reading Proust, but I think I'm going to reread all of William Gibson first.
(Amen to that last, tho I suppose I'd substitute something even trashier for Gibson...) Yes, it is all about pleasure, on some level, & I guess what I'm lamenting is that in pitchforking thru "cultural overproduction" (Tyrone's term), in reading thru scores of books or listening to hundreds of hours of music, I find myself losing immediate pleasure, perhaps even losing the capacity for immediate pleasure.

There is a big element of Puritan guilt here, the sense that "I own it, I've got to listen to/read it, whether I want to or not at the moment" – my own particular fundamentalist heritage (which I learned to my delight recently, I share with Evie Shockley) is still a far-too-big element of my mindset in general. But I'm not sure it has much todo with Bloom's "more severe, more harassing" pleasures: that's the pleasure of reading Bruce Andrews rather than Billy Collins, & I'm up for that any day. Bloom would quite rightly put my "read it all" passion down to simple anality.
Ours, Cole Swensen (U of California P, 2008)

I was drawn to this one by its very subject matter – 17th-century French formal gardening, particularly the work of the landscape architect André Le Nôtre (from whose name Swensen gets her punning title). I know relatively little about the French formal tradition of landscapes, exemplified by Le Nôtre's work at Versailles & Vaux-le-Vicomte; I've been more interested in the transition between formal & "picturesque" styles that takes place in England over the 18th century, & gets thematized in Pope & others.

But I'm a sucker for gardening poems, & Swensen's evocations of Le Nôtre are rich with history, pondering deeply the implications of shaping the landscape, its plants & watercourses, along strictly geometric lines. What I increasingly found fascinating in Swensen's poem-sequence, however, was her sense of the sentence. Her sentences, that is, unforld with deceptively straightforward syntax, often enriched by internal rhymes & sound repetition. But as they unwind over multiple lines, they shift direction, rhetoric, & blossom out into something quite different from what they began as – often, something larger, more "metaphysical."

Much of the time, I think it's fair to say, Swensen's addressing a strict and neoclassical art (the formal garden, which owes more to Euclid than it does to Longinus, more to geometry than to the sublime) in an interestingly post-Romantic register. Where Marvell's Mower laments the sterility of those evenly demarcated parterres, Swensen lets her imagination move over them until they become the source of a different sublime from that which the Romantics shivered at as they contemplated the Alps or the ocean – a geometric sublime, comparable to what the advanced metaphysician sees in a well-formed equation or proof.


1 comment:

adams24 said...

I absolutely adore Cole Swensen's syntaxes--sort of hybrids of Rosmarie Waldrop's Road work, Christanne Miller's wonderful term (in regards to Dickinson) "syntactic doubling," and surely some Throw of Dice Mallarme. But odder. Never quite permitting diagram. She herself continually centers on the visual in composition, but I think it's her syntax far more than her sense of page as picture-plain that generates excitement. Syntactic Ekphrasis!