Patterns of Noncommensurability in Some Great Poets and Writers



I was thinking as I drove to work this morning, aware of the dark and light green of the grass beside the highway, the blue-gray sky and the browns of the budding trees surrounding me, that there are certain important and interesting similarities, concordances, between the works of Thoreau, Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop and James Schuyler.  And I was trying to figure out a way to talk about these similarities in a helpful and compelling way.  Essentially, I think it’s this – these writers and poets are united by their habitual mode of perceiving the world; and that this mode, this manner, this way, has a lot to do with value, specifically valuing what they see for what it is, as opposed to what it should be.

“What it is, as opposed to what it should be” sounds somewhat unimportant – what’s the difference?  But I think there actually is a world of difference, and that this difference translates into a different aesthetic for each of these writers.  Let me explain.  When Schuyler, say, writes a poem, he begins with a stance towards the world, a certain way of looking, thinking and feeling.  And this stance is the kind of emotional palette with which he will build his poem.  If the emphasis is on visionary imagination, if the attentional awareness bends or leans in that direction, then a different kind of poem will, in the process of its making, ensue.  If the emphasis, on the other hand, is on the world around us, on nature and the weather, then of course a different kind of poem will make its presence felt.  It all depends on the kinds of things the poet values and wishes to make plain/complex on the page.  Thus Schuyler writes in “Letter Poem #3”:

The night is quiet

as a kettle drum

the bull frog basses

tuning up.  After

swimming, after sup-

per, a Tarzan movie,

dishes, a smoke.  One

planet and I

wish.  No need

of words.  Just

you, or rather,

us.  The stars tonight

in pale dark space

are clover flowers

in a lawn the expanding

Universe in which

we love it is

our home.  So many

galaxies and you my

bright particular,

my star, my sun, my

other self, my bet-

ter half, my one

There is the intimate sense here of the poet reciting a short litany of what he loves, all of which revolves or orbits around the trope of the Universe itself as the poet’s home.  Thus the “you” in the poem, whom I assume here to be the speaker’s lover, is compared to a star and a sun.  But notice what these comparisons are juxtaposed to – swimming, summer, a Tarzan movie, a smoke.  What has happened is allowed to, as it were, lie down with the poet’s muted hyperbole, and there is no hierarchical awareness dictating what to include or not to include in the poem.  The smoke and the Tarzan movie are given just as much attention, and therefore importance, as the overwhelming love the poet feels for his lover.  Even the night and the frogs are united in a trope related to jazz and, in that sense, improvisation, that resolutely and radically democratic art in which each instrument has its say.  But the basses aren’t playing just yet – they are “tuning up,” perhaps mirroring the poet himself, who is beginning to write the poem.  And Schuyler warms up, not to blast into some imaginative vision, some archetypal sublimity, but instead to stay with what is near to him, even if what is near to him is metaphorically described as stars and suns.  Thus, in the embrace of the poet, the near and the distant, the high and the low, are given new implications and meanings that cannot be separated from the poet’s philosophical standpoint.  And this standpoint values what is near and dear to him, what is in his “circle of concern,” even if what he compares this circle to is the sun and stars.  Each thing, then, is given its place.  The poem is a kind of embrace of value, where nothing is prioritized over something else.  It’s a modest, reticent poem, where there is ostensibly “No need / of words,”  or at least no need of too many words.

And you find this kind of attentional awareness in Ashbery, Bishop, and Thoreau as well.  Thoreau’s attention to the weather, Ashbery’s brave inclusion of anything and everything in his poems, and Bishop’s privileging of what is often ignored to be useful subject matter for her poems: these strategies for making meaning are all united by the attempt to see the world in a non-prioritizing, non-hierarchical way, but instead to value what presents itself to our awareness, no matter what that is.  Thus these poets share a kind of ethical vision, one which is radically un-moralistic, committed to what Martha Nussbaum calls “noncommensurability,” how each things in the universe has its place, is irreplaceable, and thus a vision of non-reductive particularity and complexity.


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