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(I know, two academic boring posts in 24 hours…): my seminar thesis!

April 28, 2008

Whitney R. Roberts

Dr. Scanlon

ENGL 458: Seminar in American Long Poems

28 April 2008

Vocalized Landscapes in the Contemporary American Long Poem:
Derek Walcott’s Omeros and Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris

“Yet, America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles
with imagination, and it will not wait long for meters.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The resonance of poetry relies on a relationship to the immutable foundations of human identity and orientation: a relationship to the natural world, to other man, and to the divine. Prior to the contemporary era, the prestigious genre of the long poem fit rather neatly into the categories of epic (the scope of which implied historical, cultural, and national claims, as well as a sanction by the divine), and lyric sequence or cycle (which centered nearly exclusively on the subject of love, between persons, or between a person and the divine). In the contemporary world, the formidable grasp of the collective human understanding on a definitive divinity, and various national/tribal allegiances, have become less clear due to the forces of technology and the shifting geopolitical landscape. Postcolonial diaspora communities, of which America is an “early” example, present particularly complex liminal spaces for the forging of a “Supreme Fiction.” Therefore, in contemporary poetry, attention gathers on the subject of landscape, and nature, as a medium for collective identity formation.
The supremacy of landscape as a source of inspiration is by no means an innovation of contemporary poetry, of course; a look at the Romantic and Transcendentalist schools provides both the Colonizer’s and Colonized view of the privilege of natural metaphors. There is an important cognitive leap, however, between the use of landscape by the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats and the vocalization of the landscape in the works of contemporary poets, such as Glück and Walcott. Wordsworth’s daffodils are but flowers, symbols onto which the poet projects his or her own emotions and perceptions of the world. It would be ludicrous to say that Walcott and Glück are not also, on some level, forcing their own “emotions” onto the landscapes they write about; however, the vocalization of these landscapes, in their own right, grants them a sort of agency in the poem. The landscape, rather than a mirror to the human condition, becomes a viable, interactive character in the poem.
The consistency of a mediating landscape acts as the necessary supremely coherent element, which prevents the long poem’s dissolving. This higher language belonging to a vocal landscape cements the new identity of the poet-prophet In the works of Omeros and The Wild Iris, legitimizing his/her strivings into such an extended genre, by granting access to a supreme text– that of nature. The American writer of the long poem, in commune with the “true text” of the natural world, finds a wellspring of identity, meaning, healing, and transcendence, sufficient to ground the scope of a contemporary epic, whether communal or personal.

Section I:
Make it Cohere: Landscape as Continuity

In his aptly titled essay, “The Dilemma of the Long Poem,” Dana Gioia reveals the difficulty of modern writers of long poem in maintaining its cohesion, having sacrificed the traditional epic narrative structure, and formal rigidity. He claims:

…the long modern poem is virtually doomed to failure by its own ground rules. Any extended work needs a strong overall form to guide both the poet in creating it and the reader in understanding it. By rejecting the traditional epic structures […] the modern author has been thrown almost entirely on his own resources. He must not only try to synthesize the complexity of his culture into one poem, he must also create the form of his discourse as he goes along. (25)
Gioia has aptly named perhaps the primary concern for the author of a long poem: how to make a work of such scope coherent and sustained. In the void Gioia identifies by the loss of “traditional epic structures” such as straightforward narration, a quest for identity, answerability to the supreme entities of God or Nation, etcetera, contemporary American authors of the long poem have supplanted landscape as a suprahuman, unifying context. In Omeros, Maud’s funerary shroud provides a clean metaphor for the functioning of landscape as a cohesive fiber, during the her funerary scene, the narrator reflects on:

…the ghosts I will make of you with my scratching pen,

like a needle piercing the ring’s embroidery
with a swift’s beak, or where, like a nib from the rim
of an inkwell, a martin flickers a wing dry… (266)

The conflation of the poet’s pen with Maud’s embroidery needle takes on even more importance with the knowledge that the funerary bier she was making was “hung with orchids” and “the image of a swift/ …and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s/ birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there” (267). Her shroud, an artistic representation of the natural world, is meant to cover her body, and her expired life, in entirety. It serves as the drapery over a completed thing, a completed life; in Walcott’s case, the represented landscape serves as a covering for the completed work, linking the text everywhere with the images of the island.

In Glück’s 1994 collection of essays, Proofs and Theories, she states,

The argument for completion, for thoroughness, for exhaustive detail, is that it makes an art more potent because more exact– a closer recreation of the real […] Louis Simpson says the lyric poem is any poem expressing personal emotion rather than describing events. The opposite, in other words, of the news story. The expression […] depends, obviously, on the existence of a voice… (74-5)
Glück’s traditional and narrow description of the lyric here necessarily changes within the context of a lyric sequence, or long poem. She claims for her poetry the sustenance of lyric intensity, and simultaneously harpoons the root of poetic expression: the need for a voice. In The Wild Iris, in fact, the voices are in triplicate, and that of the various parts of the garden maintain stirring presence. Interestingly, critics have pointed out that the voices of The Wild Iris, though clearly intended to be three distinct voices (that of poet, garden and God), meld together in the continuity and lyricism of the ‘I,’ as though the entire work is being uttered by one speaker. In part, this conflation of the voices enhances the ability of the reader to project themselves, their own consciousness, into the work, heightening its transcendent properties.
In a very similar way, Omeros has what may be termed the “slippery I”: lack of speech markers, complex syntax, and intentional ambiguity allow for an experience of uncertainty about who is speaking, at times. This fluidity of the lyric voice, even in a poem participating in the narrative epic tradition, is underscored in Omeros by the constant conflation of Helen and the island of St. Lucia, often called “the Helen of the Caribbean.” The presence of Helen’s bewitching beauty, and that of the island, is the force around which the male characters orbit; in a moment of clarity in a bar, Plunkett “remembered the flash of illumination/ …the island was Helen” (103). Integral to the fabric of Omeros is the intertwining and indiscernability of the many characters’ voices, and the omnipresent, simultaneous fluidity and stability of the vocal island landscape. Like Glück, Walcott embraces the stability of voice as a facet of the stability of “setting,” as it were. Repeatedly, the very physical bodies of the islanders are described in terms of the island’s topography; Helen’s pregnant form is described as “a sail/ …and her hoarse, labouring rhythm/ was a delivering wave. There, in miniature, the world was globed like fruit…” (275). Perhaps more memorably, Ma Kilman’s experience of finding the cure for Philoctete included the literal grafting of her body to the forest, making her limbs extensions of the god-trees:

Her hair sprung free as the moss. Ants scurried
through the wiry curls, barring, then passing each other

the same message with scribbling fingers and forehead
touching forehead…

…She rubbed dirt in her hair, she prayed
in the language of ants and her grandmother, to lift

the sore from its roots…
she scraped the earth with her nails, and the sun

put the clouds to its ears as her screech reeled backwards
to its beginning, from the black original cave
of the sibyl’s mouth, her howl made the emerald lizard

lift one clawed leg, remembering the sound. (244-5)
In her own work, and that of Walcott, Glück’s vision of a the continuity of a poetic work lying in “the existence of a voice,” has been reimagined as the multifaceted intertwined Voice of the landscape, the poet, god, and the characters of both works.
Section II:
The Supreme Text of Nature and the New Poet-Prophet

“…the loss of surface narrative in the modernist long poem, the dissolution of its ‘narrative glue,’ is compensated for by the persistence of narrative at another level […] postmodernism no longer seeks to ‘make it new’ but more often to make it again (differently). The recycling of historical styles is a hallmark of postmodernist aesthetics…” (McHale 4)

Among other requirements of the long poem, particularly the epic, is the poet’s concern with “generating a hero from a version of himself [or herself] that includes his [or her] … readers” (Keller, The Twentieth Century Long Poem, 535). In the American epic tradition, Whitman was perhaps the first to pick up the mantle of the poet-prophet, and lay claim to the particular gift of vision which privileges the poet with the right to speak on behalf of others:

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means. (17)

Walcott does not shy away from making a similar claim for himself in the realm of the Caribbean. By inserting himself into the verse of Omeros as the “narrator/poet,” he gives direct voice to the complex claim that he is exceptional, “Passing the lamplit leaves I knew I was different”(185), and yet inseparably tied to his own people, as their voice, creating “not another anthem/ trembling over the water– he has learnt three of them–/ but […] so that he can hear/ the surf in the pores of wet sand wince and pucker” (170). The sound he is privy too, and sets up as indicative St. Lucia, in the way national anthems embody other countries, is that of the sea. He can hear the sea. And, it is the sea which sounds out the nature of Afro-Caribbean peoples. Walcott is self-defined as a great American writer, and a great writer of English. In fact, he sees his long and remarkably canonical career as a testament to his being the supreme voice for the Caribbean in literature.
Walcott is unique in that his authority to write “the great Caribbean epic(s)” is twofold: like Langston Hughes within the African-American community of the 1950s, Walcott is of the correct geographical and racial origin to give voice to this community. He is African and European by blood, and a St. Lucian by birthright; therefore, he claims for himself the unique ability to absorb the great traditions of Homer, Dante, Spenser, Milton, Pound, Eliot and Whitman, among others, and synthesize a new epic, which is not merely the layering of Afro-Caribbean characters over a Greek story, but is the intertwining of two origins of identity to create a new epic. In fact, Fumagalli and Patrick make the case that Walcott uses linguistic codes within Caribbean patois and Creole to align is narrative with broader Afro-Caribbean understandings of suffering and healing.
Walcott’s unsurpassed intimacy with the Caribbean landscape, coupled with his genetic claim to European and African traditions, cements his claim as the voice of the Afro-Caribbean world. The opening scene of the poem is evidence enough of Walcott’s extraordinary vision for the natural world, and his ability to lend voice to flora and fauna alike:

…The logs gathered that thirst

for the sea which their own vined bodies were born with.
Now the trunks in eagerness to become canoes
ploughed into breakers of bushes, making raw holes

of boulders, feeling not death inside them, but use–
to roof the sea, to be hulls… (7)

Right away , Walcott gives us a vision of the conscious and responsive trees. They are duty-bound, morally upright, capable of contemplating their own demise, and of understanding their existence as an evolution from living god, to facilitator of human existence. In these first pages, particularly, Walcott is channeling the knowledge of the Aruac people: the indigenous inhabitants of the islands who were destroyed by European conquest and disease. This link with a lost civilization, to whose customs he is scantly privy, establishes Walcott’s speaking landscape as older, sager, than the poet himself. He is the mouthpiece for an enduring physical world, longer-lasting than the transient tribes of people that inhabit it.
For Glück, the claim of a privileged and visionary role as poet-prophet is complicated by the shifted scope of the poem. She is writing a lyric sequence, certainly, but it enacts many of the characteristics associated with the personal epic:

…in which loose or open structure replaces the traditional narrative; a familiar colloquial style replaces an elevated one; the poet’s self as embodiment of his [or her] time and place substitutes for the ‘truly heroic hero’; interior actions replace exterior ones […] and new myths–Supreme Fictions–are sought rather than national myths reenacted. (Keller, “Forms of Expansion” 7)

Rather than make obvious claims to epic, which are explicit even in the title of Walcott’s characters, Glück positions the poet as a voice of inquiry, rather than absolute authority. Implicit in this, however, is the privileged ability to commune with the natural world, and by extension, God/the divine. In one of the series titled “Vespers,” the voice of the “poet/narrator” (just in the way that Walcott gives his “speaker” siblings with the same names as Walcott’s own siblings, so to does Glück give the female “poet-speaker” a husband and son with her own family’s names) describes the nature of her own visions of the divine:

Even as you appeared to Moses, because
I need you, you appear to me, not
often, however. I live essentially
in darkness. You are perhaps training me to be
responsive to the slightest brightening. Or, like the poets,
are you stimulated by despair, does grief
move you to reveal your nature?
[…] I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions. (43)

Immediately, Glück compares herself to the Biblical prophet Moses, as an individual singled out to hear the voice of God, and to receive “visions.” Interestingly, the layered meta-poetics of this passage imply that God’s behavior may be similar in nature to “the poets;” the speaker is creating a particular anthropomorphization of God. He is not just human-like, but poet-like. Thus, the poet would be most able to understand his motivations and revelations. Therefore, though subtle, the speaker of The Wild Iris makes no qualms about cementing her position as a poet-prophet, privy to divine messages. Rather, it is the messages (and the God who sends them) who seem sporadic and inconsistent with their revelations, translating to the incomplete understanding of the speaker.

i. Vocalization as the Primary Desire of Consciousness

“The impulse of our century has been to substitute earth for god as an object of reverence. This seems an implicit rejection of the eternal. But the religious mind, with its hunger for meaning and disposition to awe, its craving for the path, the continuum, the unbroken line, for what is final, immutable, cannot sustain itself on matter and natural process.”
– Louise Glück, Proofs and Theories (21)

In Louise Glück’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Wild Iris, she opens the volume in the clear, lyric voice of the titular flower, addressing the work’s apparently autobiographical poet-speaker, and by extension, the reader:

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
(p.1, li.16-20)

“Louise Glück is a poet who has gone on record as preferring to read and write poetry that ‘requires or even craves a listener'” (Spiegelman 2). The hanging colon after “voice” invites the listeners to see the broad text, in fact, as a kind of testimony of the wild iris, a not only conscious, but sage, voice in dialogue with humanity and a God-head, and capable of regeneration, the conquering of “[…] that which you fear, being/ a soul and unable/ to speak…” (1, li.1-12). Thus, the flower, and by extension, the garden and nature et al, has immediately been given a place of privilege. Rather than the usual dichotomies of earth and heaven, life and death, natural and supernatural, human and divine, Glück’s work establishes a trinity of being: God, Humanity, and the Garden.
Humanity’s great fear, as described and possibly assuaged by the opening flower-speaker, is of feeling consciousness, and yet being “unable to speak.” This supreme impotence is couched in the label “that which you call death” (li.3), and described physically as being “buried in the dark earth” (li.10). Inherent in the image of “burial” and “earth” is the juxtaposition between human burial as a rite performed after death, and the burial of plant-matter, as the genesis of life. In fact, the anxiety of a person about being buried while “still conscious” is sacrilegious in the context of Christian dogma. The burial of a human soul connotes an inseparable tie between the physical human body, and the intangible soul, which Christians believe separate upon death, ensuring that the disembodied soul is rewarded or punished in afterlife, according to one’s earthly deeds. The image of a buried soul implies that there is in fact no afterlife, and no divine judge, the actual root of the implied addressee’s anxiety about death and voicelessness. Thus, it is the flower who appears to have steadfast faith, not the human addressee.
ii. The Divine Landscape

The privileged nature of the Supreme Fiction, the language of landscape privy to poets, would not sustain such status without the assurance that landscape provides transcendence. Even in its vocality, the landscape of both The Wild Iris and Omeros serves as a pervasive trope. The craft of poetry, in its most condensed meaning, is the ability to mould metaphors which are so apt that they breed a higher understanding in the reader, than merely the sum of their parts. The extended metaphors of landscape, and its use of language, are the linchpin on which balances the reality of physical life, and the promise of metaphysical meaning. In The Wild Iris, the poem titled “Song” features the poet/speaker describing the “blood-red” flower and being countered by her more logical husband:

…to survive
adversity merely
deepens its color. But John
objects, he thinks
if this were not a poem but
an actual garden, then
the red rose would be
required to resemble
nothing else, neither
another flower nor
the shadowy heart…(27)
In sharp contrast, the transcendent ambition of poetry is laid against the possibly purer or truer, if flat, existence of the flower as only flower. With the dissenting voice of John, we are indoctrinated into poetry as an exceptional, elevated, intense form of language, capable of layering images, emotions, and concepts like translucent paper. The poem, “The Red Poppy” seems in dialogue with “Song.” The flower speaks, claiming for itself “feelings” and “the great thing…[of] not having a mind.” The flower laments for the human condition of having a mind:
…I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him […]
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? (29)
The red poppy seems to be diagnosing John, in particular, with a crippling overly-cerebral existence, which limits his ability to “open” to the divine. In this lyric, as in other places throughout the sequence, we hear the echoes of revisionary mythopoesis in regards to Genesis. It is Knowledge which has forced this wedge between mankind and the divine, which the garden does not possess, and so can commune freely.
This preoccupation with the divine as a grounding for the Supreme Fiction of vocal landscape permeates both Omeros and The Wild Iris, though in slightly different ways. In Omeros, the landscape is the actual embodiment of the gods, as aforementioned in the making of canoes, and the experience of Ma Kilman in the forest. Therefore, the tie between landscape and language, particularly the “lost” language of Africa which is supposed to harmonize with the sounds of the natural world to the point of direct, immutable synchronization, is the path to healing and salvation. Adversely, Glück’s poem positions the landscape as an emissary between the poet/speaker and God; all three entities are given voice, but in different proportions, with the poet speaking most often, followed by the flowers, and the least frequent voice of God. The flowers, rather than the messages of God, seem directed at the questions of the poet/speaker, and seek to bring healing and understanding to humanity.

In the very first scene of Omeros, the fishermen are employing a “native” African method of canoe-making, and page after page is dedicated to the speech of the forest’s flora and fauna. Particularly, the trees from which they fashion the canoes are repeatedly called “Gods” and described as uttering a “native” language:

…He swayed back the blade,

and hacked limbs from the dead god, knot after knot,
wrenching the severed veins from the trunk as he prayed:
“Tree! You can be a canoe! Or else you cannot!”

The bearded elders endured the decimation
of their tribe without uttering a syllable
of that language they had uttered as one nation,

the speech taught their saplings: from the towering babble
of the cedar to green vowels of bois-camp_eche…

…the Aruacs’ patois crackled in the smell
of a resinous bonfire that turned the leaves brown

with curling tongues, then ash, and their language was lost. (6)

This first scene is a ritualized slaughter of the gods, and a ritualized silencing of them, at once, by the men. However, the men creating these canoes are privy to the trees’ language: “…They sound like the sea that feed us/ fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes,/ the trees have to die.’ Fumagalli says of the work:

The whole of Walcott’s Omeros can be seen as a healing narrative: the poem reenacts the same healing experience through different characters (the narrator, Achille, Philoctete) led by alternating guides (Walcott’s father, the African Afolabe, Omeros himself, Seven Seas, a sea-swift, Ma Kilman, St. Lucia–both the poet’s island and the saint). (2)
Fumagalli stops short of the final step in this “healing narrative,” however; the catalysts (be they human, geographic, or symbolic) are all channeling the healing powers of the divine landscape, in order to transcend physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. The intense connection between language and landscape, and that ability to heal, is most evident in Achille’s spiritual dream-journey back to Africa, after which the narrator laments the loss of a language with meaningful connections between the sounds of words and what they signify:

…Their whole world was moving,
or a large part of the world, and what began dissolving

was the fading sound of their tribal name for the rain,
the bright sound for the sun, a hissing noun for the river,
and always the word “never,” and never the word “again.” (152)
In the instance of Philoctete’s wounded shin, which he fears “will never heal” (“qui pas ka guerir piece” in patois) because it is the symbolic wounding of his ancestors, enslaved from Africa, the cure is indisputably the African flower that Ma Kilman discovers (18). This most physical of ailments, brings about the most physical of healing ceremonies: “all their power,/ their roots, and their rituals were concentrated/ in the whorled corolla of that stinking flower./ All the unburied gods, for three deep centuries dead,/ but from whose lineage, as if her veins were their roots/ her arms ululated, uplifting…”(242-3). In the combined African tradition of ancestor-worship, and the embraced Catholicism, Ma Kilman represents a uniquely fit obeahwoman for the revelation of this natural cure for the historical taint of slavery. It is to her that the tree-gods reveal themselves.
The gods of the island landscape are not entirely benevolent, however. The death of Hector is viewed by Achille, and foreshadowed by the narrator himself, as being caused by Hector’s turning away from the sea, a kind of supreme maternal goddess. Walcott writes:

…a frightening discontent
hollowed his face; to find that the sea was a love

he could never lose made every gesture violent:
ramming the side-door shut, raking the clutch. He drove
as if driven by furies, but furies paid the rent.

A man who cursed the sea had cursed his own mother.
Mer was both mother and sea. In his lost canoe
he had said his prayers. But now he was in another

kind of life that was changing him…(231)
Hector’s death is viewed as a medieval smiting of a sinner, a man who had turned away from God (or in this case Goddess) for his own material gains, and selfish pleasure. The island landscape as both wrathful and benevolent gives it a fuller, more complex deic identity.
Section III:
Writing an ‘American’ Epic:
Vocalized Landscapes Appropriate to the Legacy of Diversity

The American desire “to give voice to nature’s ‘original energy’ and to release the oppositional dynamics propelling ‘the procreant urge of the world'” is identified by Lynn Keller as originating in Whitman’s ground-breaking long poem, Song of Myself (“The Twentieth-Century Long Poem,” 535). Furthermore, Miller opens his essay entitled “The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction” with the statement, “Since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and even before, American poets have dreamed of providing these States with a–perhaps the– Supreme Fiction, a delineated ideal, a set of beliefs, a model for living, a summation of the essence of what it means to be an American.”(13). It is naive to think that Glück and Walcott don’t actively participate in this effort to define America through the comprehensive lens of the epic, which Conte maintains “must express a complete world view, a breadth of intellectual concerns, or mental capaciousness […an obsession] with cosmology, the creation and evolution of the world” (35).
Whether vocalized landscape is the quintessential component of a distinctly American long poem is yet to be proved, and would require a broader examination of American long poems; however, whether it be of national or personal scope, the genre of long poem must necessarily pay homage to the unique American relationship to landscape. In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as quoted by Miller:

Is then our land to be indeed the land of song? Will it one day be rich in romantic association? Will poetry, that hallows every scene, that renders every spot classical, and pours out on all things the soul of its enthusiasm, breathe over it that enchantment which lives in the isles of Greece […] Yes!–and palms are to be won by our native writers! (25-26)
According to James Miller, in his essay titled “The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman’s Legacy in the Personal Epic” there is “something especially American […] in the poet’s recurring ambition to write a long poem…”(15). Contemporary poets face a fractured, postcolonial, technologically advanced world wherein nationality and religion–the two remaining strongholds of human faith and identity–have crumbled in the wake of two world wars, and the onslaught of ever-new technology. In an environment of faster omnipresent information, poets carve out a space in which to do what the genre of long poem has long demanded: a poem “that will serve as its [America’s] epic, and if not its epic, then as the embodiment of its “Supreme Fiction” (in Wallace Steven’s sense), as a particularly American way of conceiving or perceiving or receiving the world.”(Miller 16). In The Wild Iris and Omeros, this Supreme Fiction is the vocal landscape, its medium is the poet, and its expression is the continuous long poem.
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