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It has been a while since I sent out a poem.  A strange circumstance intervened.  I found a poem to send out, and wrote about it, but since the poem I found was itself  about reading another poem, I chose only to 'introduce' the poem and not add commentary of my own.  Would this suffice?  I asked two friends, and they said yes.  I asked my wife, and she said no.  I decided my wife, Buff, was right, and that I had to add more.

But adding on, as an activity, to what I thought I had already finished, proved more intimidating than I thought.  And so I delayed and temporized and, well, it took me a while to write the 'more.'  That 'more' follows the Anne Carson poem reproduced below.  So what you have is a small fragment from the Greek, my brief framing of the poem Anne Carson wrote about it,  Carson's poem itself, "Essay on What I Think About Most" - all composed a month ago - and a commentary I have added just recently.


 [?] made three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not
                        Alkman, 7th century B.C., Sparta

I have, in the small identification of his time and place told you all I know about Alkman.  Before encountering the Carson poem, I never knew he existed.  I know nothing of his poetry except the poem I have just cited.

This is going to be a very different essay on poetry than the ones I have sent previously.  Well, not entirely, but there will be quite a bit less of my words in it.

First, something about background and context, and then my voice will retreat.

Each month I think for a long time about just which poem I will write about, turning around and around the notion of sending this or that particular poem by a poet, so that I can determine if it feels like the right thing to embark upon.

The past few days I've been thinking about the next poem to send - well, actually, I have been thinking about three, all linked by what is, to my mind, the same subject.  One of the three is a poem I encountered only recently, "Father's Old Blue Cardigan," by Anne Carson.  But I wasn't sure about whether it was quite proper for me to take up Carson, since in previous attempts at reading her poems I've felt I haven't approached her closely enough: I've stood outside some of her poems and admired her skill and intelligence and innovation, but I can't say - and don't feel - that I have inhabited them.

[From an interview with Mike Wallace, published as part of William Carlos Williams' epic poem, Paterson:]

Q. Mr. Williams, can you tell me, simply, what poetry is?

A. Well ... I would say that poetry is language charged with emotion. It's words, rhythmically organized . . . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is. ]

I hadn't quite got that 'complete little universe' of Carson, and I hadn't come to a sense that her poem expresses the whole life of the poet, giving a view of what she is.

Writing about the one poem of hers I found accessible seemed - well, a little fraudulent.  Or at least premature.  One poem is so....so..... 'provisional.'  What about the rest of Carson?  Is this one of her better poems, or just the only one I could approach successfully?

So I availed myself of a perk of working in the Senate complex, which is that we can take books out of the Library of Congress.  They come, in fact, delivered to our office, the day after we request them by email.  I requested six of Carson's, and sure enough the next morning they were on my desk, five of them encircled by two bands of plastic strapping to keep them in a neat little package.

I began with the first unstrapped book, parts of which I had encountered before.  It was Carson's translation of Sappho, the Greek poet who has, for much of human history, rightly been regarded as one of the preeminent women poets: the first great woman poet, the inventor of a whole genre - no, that word is much too narrow - of lyric poetry, the poetry of intense and passionate desire, who did for Greece and secular Western civilization what David did for Israel and religious Western civilization in the Biblical  "Song of Songs."

After reading many of the translations, I moved on to Carson's first book, then on to another.

[I should hasten to say that I, most of the time, do not read poetry this way, nor do I recommend it to you.  Too often, far too often, poetry seems to most of us like something only for initiates, or only for the smartest kid in English class.  And I, emphatically, reject both notions, even though many poets and esthetes and intellectuals embrace one or the other of them.  For I know that many of you reading this are not committed readers of poetry, or that some of you may even be like many of my students, who aren't at all sure how much they like poetry or how capable they are of reading it.  But you'll try a poem, and like it when the poem seems to speak to you.  'That's something: I'm glad I read that.'

Poems, I believe, are for everyone.  Maybe not every poem, but many poems.  So let me state unequivocally my conviction that the joys of poetry are not available only to initiates.  In my view the best way to read poems does not entail reading a book of them from cover to cover.  I think we need to pick up a book, read a poem - and for me it is as often as not only some lines of the poem - and then keep reading if  the lines please us or intrigue us, and skip to another poem if they don't.  No need to read in order.  Sometimes poets plan elaborate architecture for their books, but that planning is, for most of us, irrelevant.

Poetry is about liking: just as with music, there is some music we like, and that is the music we choose to listen to.  Of course, just as with music, there are moments when we want to test ourselves, listen to something beyond or outside our usual range of hearing or liking.  But if we treated song as something 'good for us,' like medicine we have to swallow because it is good for a cough, the chances are we will be glad to be past song in the same way as we are past cough medicine once the cough has gone.  Pleasure and art are inextricably linked. ]

But I digress.  As I was reading happily, although on occasion in confusion at her postmodernism, in the third Carson book I stumbled into a poem that struck me as one I should send out to all of you on this list.  I won't write about the poem, because the reason I am sending it is that it occurred to me that Carson is doing what I have been doing for a year now, wandering into a poem, looking closely at how its language and structure work to tell us things we don't see as easily as we might - in the language of Aristotle which she refers to in the poem, diving beneath 'ordinary language' into 'metaphorical language' - and in conclusion moving to solidify what the poem may have taught us now that we have looked at it closely.

"Essay on What I Think About Most" is Carson's analysis of Alkman's five line lyric, the poem I cited at the start.  It is called an "Essay." It is in fact an essay, but it is more and other: it is a remarkably fine poem.  In that sense, it may be regarded as an apotheosis - an elevation into the divine - of an essay on poetry.

A couple of contextual 'facts' before I leave you together with the poem.  First, Anne Carson is a Canadian and, as you might guess from her interest in Alkman and from her knowledge of him, a professor and scholar of Greek poetry, language, civilization.  She teaches classics at the University of Michigan.  Second, a good number of her poems (the ones I have read, and by now that is quite a few) deal with love and desire and their dissolution, with abandonment, grief, anger, and the attempt to bind a wounded life together.  So maybe - maybe - the first stanza about 'error' is more personal than it might appear, and the poem, which as it proceeds is rather philosophical, could be in part about how she herself works her way through and past error and the emotions attendant on it.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  (My son Dave, in one of the most lovely close readings I have encountered, long ago told me that 'maybe' and 'maybe not' mean exactly the same thing.  I've always thought that a truth about our everyday language worth knowing.)

I can't resist pointing to something that should have been obvious to me, but that I didn't notice until I typed the poem out, line after line: each stanza has six lines.

Enough.  Here is the poem, "Essay on What I Think About Most," a poem that that uses another poem - Alkman's - to penetrate deep into a role that error can play in our lives.  By so doing, it penetrates as well into the heart of our engagement with the strangeness that marks human existence.


Essay on What I Think About Most
            Anne Carson

Error.
And its emotions.
On the brink of error is a condition of fear
In the midst of error is a state of folly and defeat.
Realizing you've made an error brings shame and remorse
Or does it?

Let's look into this.
Lots of people including Aristotle think error
An interesting and valuable mental even t.
In his discussion of metaphor in the Rhetoric
Aristotle says there are 3 kinds of words.
Strange, ordinary and metaphorical.

"Strange words simple puzzle us;
ordinary words convey what we know already;
it is from metaphor that we can get hold of something new & fresh"
(Rhetoric, 1410b10-13).
In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
when suddenly
that surface breaks or complicates.
Unexpectedness emerges.

At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong,
Then it makes sense.
And at this moment, according to Aristotle,
the mind turns to itself and says:
"How true, and yet I mistook it!"
From the true mistakes of metaphor a lesson can be learned.

Not only that things are other than they seem,
and so we mistake them,
but that such mistakenness is valuable.
Hold onto it, Aristotle says,
there is much to be seen and felt here.
Metaphors teach the mind

to enjoy error
and to learn
from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case.
There is a Chinese proverb that says,
Brush cannot write two characters with the same stroke,
And yet

that is exactly what a good mistake does.
Here is an example.
It is a fragment of ancient Greek lyric
That contains an error of arithmetic.
The poet does not seem to know
That 2 + 2 = 4

Alkman fragment 20:
[?] made three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not.

Alkman lived in Sparta in the 7th century B.C.
Now Sparta was a poor country
and it is unlikely
that Alkman led a wealthy or well-fed life there.
This fact forms the background of his remarks
Which end in hunger.

Hunger always feels
like a mistake.
Alkman makes us experience this mistake
with him
by an effective use of computational error.
For a poor Spartan poet with nothing

left in his cupboard
at the end of winter-
along comes spring
like an afterthought of the natural economy,
fourth in a series of three,
unbalancing his arithmetic

and enjambing his verse.
Alkman's poem breaks off midway through an iambic metron
with no explanation
of where spring came from
or why numbers don't help us
control reality better.

There are three things I like about Alkman's poem,
First is that it is small,
light
and more than perfectly economical.
Second that it seems to suggest colors like pale green
without ever naming them.

Third that it manages to put into play
some major metaphysical questions
(like Who made the world)
without overt analysis.
You notice the verb "made" in the first verse
has no subject: [?]

It is very unusual in Greek
for a verb to have no subject, in fact
it is a grammatical mistake.
Some philologists will tell you
that this mistake is just an accident of translation,
and the poem as we have it

is surely a fragment broken off
some longer text
and that Alkman almost certainly did
name the agent of creation
in the verses preceding what we have here.
Well that may be so.

But as you know the chief aim of philology
is to reduce all textual delight
to an accident of history.
And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly
what a poet means to say,
So let's leave the question mark there

at the beginning of the poem
and admire Alkman's courage
in confronting what it brackets.
The fourth thing I like
about Alkman's poem
is the impression it gives


of  blurting out the truth in spite of itself.
Many a poet aspires
to this tone of inadvertent lucidity
but few realize it so simply asw Alkman.
Of course his simplicity is a fake.
Alkman is not simple at all,

he is a master contriver-
or what Aristotle would call an imitator
of reality.
Imitation (mimesis in Greek)
is Aristotle's collective term for the true mistakes of poetry.
What I like about this term

is the ease with which it accepts
that what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,
the willful creation of error,
the deliberate break and complication of mistakes
out of which may arise
unexpectedness.

So a poet like Alkman
sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse
and all the other silly emotions associated with making mistakes
in order to engage
the fact of the matter.
The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.

Alkman breaks the rules of arithmetic
and jeopardizes grammar
and messes up the metrical form of his verse
in order to draw us into this fact.
At the end of the poem the fact remains
and Alkman is probably no less hungry.

Yet something has changed in the quotient of our expectations.
For in mistaking them,
Alkman has perfected something.
Indeed he has
more than perfected something.
Using a single brushstroke.

________________________

So now I resume, writing more than what I was prepared to send out a month ago.  If you feel what you've read is sufficient, no need to read further.  If you want a bit more guidance with Carson's poem, keep reading....

Carson's poem is entitled "Essay on What I Think About Most."

We are in a sense prepared for what follows by the title: a meditation ['essay'comes from the French essayer, to try, and was first used by Montaigne] on a subject guided more by the mind's deliberations than by an external form or a rigorous logic.  The subject Carson thinks about most?  It is clearly announced in the first line of the poem:

Error.
And its emotions.
On the brink of error is a condition of fear
In the midst of error is a state of folly and defeat.
Realizing you've made an error brings shame and remorse
Or does it?

Many of Carson's poems are about error, about mistakes - she works in a vein somewhere in the indeterminate territory between autobiography and fiction, although (following Freud) one could easily claim all fiction is at base autobiographical, and we know in our own day that as a narrative and sense of identity is imposed on autobiography, all autobiography is in some sense fiction, a made thing.

The "Error" which comprises the whole of the first line is then regarded temporally: as we head toward it, we are afraid; in the midst of it we feel stupid; after we have committed it, looking in our rearview mirror, we feel ashamed and remorseful.

            But even before we leave the first stanza, Carson indicates that we may already have been in error, with her question: "Or does it?"  Maybe error is not the occasion for shame and remorse?  Can that be true? Should we really not be ashamed of making an error?

Let's look into this.
Lots of people including Aristotle think error
An interesting and valuable mental event.
In his discussion of metaphor in the Rhetoric
Aristotle says there are 3 kinds of words.
Strange, ordinary and metaphorical.

So she steps back, and asks us - poet and reader alike - to "look into this."  Being herself a classicist, she thinks back to Aristotle, who apparently thought error "an interesting and valuable event."  She has recourse to his Rhetoric, bringing into the poem a classical citation; in the next stanza she will provide both a quotation and an actual scholarly reference as (strange circumstance) we encounter a footnote in the middle of the poem.

      But for now, she gives us Aristotle's analysis of language, saying there are three types of language: the transparent and factual language of everyday life ('ordinary' language), strange terms (we might think of the specialized jargon of science, or engineering, or even haute cuisine), and metaphor.  She goes on to cite Aristotle in the next stanza:

"Strange words simple puzzle us;
ordinary words convey what we know already;
it is from metaphor that we can get hold of something new & fresh"
(Rhetoric, 1410b10-13).
In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

Here she asks another question: "In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?"  She answers that question in a line made especially rich by the placement the line/stanza break.  The break - the technical term for such a break which ends a line even though the thought and syntax hurtle onward and into a new line, is enjambment -  here leads us to one conclusion before the enjambment, while the ongoing syntax in the next stanza brings us to a second conclusion.   Before the enjambment "metaphor causes the mind to experience itself."  It appears, at this juncture, that metaphor is a kind of self-consciousness - but no, that is error.  Having been bound prematurely by the line ending, we find our reading is in error.  We must leap to the next stanza to get it right. For the mind experiences itself, we learn, because it makes a mistake; it experiences itself

in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
when suddenly
that surface breaks or complicates.
Unexpectedness emerges.

Wittily, having just talked about metaphor, Carson proceeds to give us one: Aristotle compares the mind to a vehicle (a boat, perhaps, or a  wagon) moving on a surface of language, when suddenly the surface gapes and there is no more solid ground, or supporting water, to hold things up without complication.  "Unexpectedness emerges."

At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong,
Then it makes sense.
And at this moment, according to Aristotle,
the mind turns to itself and says:
"How true, and yet I mistook it!"
From the true mistakes of metaphor a lesson can be learned.

This cannot be, the mind exclaims, again according to Aristotle.  Whatever has appeared from beneath the placidity of "ordinary' language must be wrong: it is so odd, so contradictory to what we thought language meant.  And here is where the mind has that moment when it can "experience itself:"  "How true [this metaphor is], and yet I mistook it."

A brief stop to look at metaphor. The example I always use to myself of a metaphor (actually, two metaphors) is from the late 18th century poet William Blake,
When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.
Two metaphors for the price of one: the sun is not the sun, but to us (in terms of a comparison to the everyday) it looks like a bright, bright golden coin; to the mystic Blake, it looks like a choir of angels singing in praise of the creator.

Not only that things are other than they seem,
and so we mistake them,
but that such mistakenness is valuable.
Hold onto it, Aristotle says,
there is much to be seen and felt here.
Metaphors teach the mind

Ah, if we read the stanza above slowly we see that a momentary ambiguity presents itself: just what is the "them" that we mistake?  When things are "other than they seem," which of the two possibilities is the mistake?  Is it the golden coin, or the hosts of angels?  Or could the 'them' be the everyday, the ordinary, which we mistake because we consume it without looking at it - 'no, no, it is just the sun.'  I'd hazard that the ambiguity is resolved in the next line, since the 'mistakenness is valuable" indicates that "there is much to be seen and felt" by seeing the sun as a host of angels, or even a disk of fire.  Metaphors, the stanza ends (again with enjambment across the stanza break), "metaphors teach the mind"

to enjoy error
and to learn
from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case.
There is a Chinese proverb that says,
Brush cannot write two characters with the same stroke,
And yet

We enjoy the eruption of the strange and odd, the unexpected, that occurs through metaphor; more, we learn from metaphor, though what we learn - "what is and what is not the case" - is again ambiguous.

What is put into play in the stanza above is paradox and syllogism.  Rationality, insofar as it is based on logic, proceeds through syllogism: a thing is itself and not another thing.  It cannot be itself, and something else.  Except, as we have been learning from Aristotle by way of Carson, in metaphor.  The sun can be the sun, and a golden coin, and a host of angels.  Nor is this syllogism just Western logic, Carson points out: an ancient Chinese proverb tells us a thing must be itself, and not another.

"And yet."

And yet,
that is exactly what a good mistake does.
Here is an example.
It is a fragment of ancient Greek lyric
That contains an error of arithmetic.
The poet does not seem to know
That 2 + 2 = 4

She is about to launch into an extended analysis of a poem, "a fragment of ancient Greek lyric."  It "contains an error of arithmetic.  "The poet does not seem to know/that 2 + 2 = 4."  Silly poet.  Though, of course, we have already been softened up, we already have an inkling that in not knowing arithmetic, in making an "error,' the Greek poet may "make sense," teach us "a lesson to be learned," give us something "true" and "valuable."

Alkman fragment 20:
[?] made three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not.

There is not much to say about this stanza, which provides Alkman's poem, nor about the next, which gives us the modest background we may need to situate the poem.

Alkman lived in Sparta in the 7th century B.C.
Now Sparta was a poor country
and it is unlikely
that Alkman led a wealthy or well-fed life there.
This fact forms the background of his remarks
Which end in hunger.

Why does hunger feel like a mistake?  Perhaps because the fear, defeat, and shame that characterized error (in stanza one) also characterize hunger prospectively, presently, and retrospectively.  Perhaps because hunger is so contrary to the self-preservation which runs so deeply - in a Darwinian sense, most deeply - in us.

Hunger always feels
like a mistake.
Alkman makes us experience this mistake
with him
by an effective use of computational error.
For a poor Spartan poet with nothing

Would we, reading this fragment of Alkman's, have seen the "computational error" resulting from his referring to three seasons and then naming four?  Certainly, as a critic, Carson not only makes us see it, but focus on it.  The mistake in arithmetic is similar to the error of hunger: the 'afterthought' in the arithmetical sequence is similar to the poet left with nothing even though the year has ended and winter is over, "a poor Spartan poet with nothing"

left in his cupboard
at the end of winter-
along comes spring
like an afterthought of the natural economy,
fourth in a series of three,
unbalancing his arithmetic

As should be clear from what I have already pointed out, enjambment characterizes not only the verse of Alkman, but also the Carson poem we are in the midst of reading.

and enjambing his verse.
Alkman's poem breaks off midway through an iambic metron
with no explanation
of where spring came from
or why numbers don't help us
control reality better.

Metron is Greek for measure, and here refers to the iambic meter of Alkman's poem, broken seemingly because what we have is a fragment - although Carson will contest this, choosing as we shall shortly see to read it as an entire poem.  They mystery of spring, its oddness, is reflected by the error: there are three seasons, and yet in the series he names, Alkman adds spring as a fourth, as disconcerting as hunger.  And neither numbers, nor logic, 'control reality,' which brings us things as uncontrollable as hunger, error - the subject of this poem - and inexplicable facts.

When I write about poems, just as when I teach poems to my students, I always point out things I admire, things that please me.  Long ago, maybe four decades and more, introductory courses in poetry were often called "Appreciation of Poetry."  We've lost that sense of wonder, that poems are things we can like and admire: today, in our very scientific and technical world, professors often think complex theorizing is the proper route to approaching literature.  You and I know better: there are things we like, and sometimes poems happen to be one of the things we like.  When I took an ethics course long ago, one of the philosophical explanations of 'the good' that impressed me most was the one which suggested that calling something 'good' meant: I like this course of action, and I want you to like it as well.

In poems, and this is especially true of great poems, often there is no better way toward understanding than saying: I like this, and if I point it out to you, maybe you will like it as well.  So here is Anne Carson, telling us what she likes about this short poem:

There are three things I like about Alkman's poem,
First is that it is small,
light
and more than perfectly economical.
Second that it seems to suggest colors like pale green
without ever naming them.

Not hard, that stanza above.  First, she praises the poem for being economical. That was Ezra Pound's definition of a poem: he noticed in a German-Italian dictionary that the German word "dichten", to make a poem, was translated by the Italian word "condensare," to condense.  [Pound's view undoubtedly influenced his old, good friend William Carlos Williams, whom I cited at the beginning --  "A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is."]  Economical.  Nor is it hard to see that a poem about spring - even if it speaks of hunger - also suggests something like pale green.  (I have always loved Williams' line about the first appearance of leaves on trees in spring: "pinched little ifs of color.")

Third that it manages to put into play
some major metaphysical questions
(like Who made the world)
without overt analysis.
You notice the verb "made" in the first verse
has no subject: [?]

Carson here approaches the poem not as a fragment, but as a whole, completed poem.  This view of the five lines transforms the uncertain opening into a major gambit made by Alkman, who by eliding the subject, in a most economical fashion addresses the question of where the world we inhabit came from - the world of not only seasons, but of hunger.

It is very unusual in Greek
for a verb to have no subject, in fact
it is a grammatical mistake.
Some philologists will tell you
that this mistake is just an accident of translation,
and the poem as we have it

is surely a fragment broken off
some longer text
and that Alkman almost certainly did
name the agent of creation
in the verses preceding what we have here.
Well that may be so.

Philologists may have their way, reason may have its way, but Carson here chooses to embrace error - she chooses to read a fragment as an intentional whole - in order to make the poem reveal far more than it would otherwise.  Remember when she told us that in "the act of making a mistake....Unexpectedness emerges"?  Well, by embracing "mistake" here instead of philology, a whole unexpected dimension of the poem, and its comprehension of the world, has emerged.  As she will say in the following stanza, "the chief aim of philology/is to reduce all textual delight to an accident of history."  She eschews the philological explanation.

Carson also understands the truth I credited to my son Dave, that maybe and maybe not mean the same thing.  "Well, that may be so," the stanza concludes. "And that may not  be so," we hear faintly - maybe, or maybe not.

But as you know the chief aim of philology
is to reduce all textual delight
to an accident of history.
And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly
what a poet means to say,
So let's leave the question mark there

at the beginning of the poem
and admire Alkman's courage
in confronting what it brackets.
The fourth thing I like
about Alkman's poem
is the impression it gives

In the six line sentence which links the two stanzas above - the last three lines of the first, the first three lines of the second - she emphasizes the immense scope of Alkman's five line poem, "confronting" the origin of the universe.

And then, in the last three lines of the second stanza above, she imitates Alkman: just as he says there are three seasons and then names four, she has said that there are "three things I like about Alkman's poem," and then rushes headlong into a fourth.

of  blurting out the truth in spite of itself.
Many a poet aspires
to this tone of inadvertent lucidity
but few realize it so simply as Alkman.
Of course his simplicity is a fake.
Alkman is not simple at all,

Alkman tells the truth, seemingly by accident in a moment of "inadvertent lucidity" (another 'error').  Certainly one aspect of the truth told by the poem is that, in the words of the opening line of what may be the twentieth century's greatest poem (though not its best!), T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month."  The land springs forth anew, and we do not: we grow older, we have hungers, we continue without a similar rebirth.

Alkman's seeming "inadvertent lucidity" is a "fake." "Alkman is not simple at all."

"He is a master contriver."  Another truth told by the poem, a truth the following stanzas will explore.  The fake that is real, the error that reveals the truth: that is the core of art, in both Aristotle's view and Carson's.  For art always imitates reality.

he is a master contriver-
or what Aristotle would call an imitator
of reality.
Imitation (mimesis in Greek)
is Aristotle's collective term for the true mistakes of poetry.
What I like about this term

Art mistakes, intentionally, the poem for the world, words for things, a created simulacrum for 'the real thing.'

So we come upon one of the oldest of truths about art - art is imitation, mimesis - in a new and unexpected way.  That "simple . . . inadvertent lucidity" in Alkman's five lines (lines which are composed by "a master contriver") create "the ease with which it accepts/ that what are engaged in when we do poetry is error."

is the ease with which it accepts
that what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,
the willful creation of error,
the deliberate break and complication of mistakes
out of which may arise
unexpectedness.

            We have in the stanza above reached the conclusion of the poem: all the rest now will be recapitulation and summary.  "What we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,/the willful creation of error."  The poet deliberately breaks with reason and syllogism and the rigors of mathematical reasoning - with 2 + 2 = 4 - and makes complicating mistakes because by doing so she can confront us with "unexpectedness." [Remember the last line of the poem's fourth stanza: after the error of metaphor, "unexpectedness emerges."]

Creating unexpectedness through contriving willful error is what Alkman achieves, and he leaves us, his readers, richer for the process.  The poem, being an imitation of life and not life itself, can "break the rules of arithmetic. . .-- . jeopardize grammar, mess" things up to "draw us into this fact:"  that hunger reigns, that we will not be satisfied by reality itself, that we need error in order to understand the world we live in.    And, creating an alternative to reality, a "mistake" and "imitation," the poem can give us error but "sidestep fear, anxiety, shame, remorse."  We recall that three of those four words were used in the first stanza of the poem, to denote the emotions that in actuality (but not in the poem!) accompany error.

So a poet like Alkman
sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse
and all the other silly emotions associated with making mistakes
in order to engage
the fact of the matter.
The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.

Alkman breaks the rules of arithmetic
and jeopardizes grammar
and messes up the metrical form of his verse
in order to draw us into this fact.
At the end of the poem the fact remains
and Alkman is probably no less hungry.

"The imperfect is our paradise," wrote Wallace Stevens in his wonderful meditation on a bowl of carnations, "Poems of our Climate."  What he says there at his conclusion is exactly, I think, what Anne Carson is saying when she writes "The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection."  Here is Stevens' conclusion to his poem:

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Alkman remains, it appears, hungry. But by creating the 'error' of his poem, he is richer - and has been able "to draw us into this fact," that we live in an imperfect world, that we have hungers, that need (and desire) are always with us.

The poem ends by pointing out that something has changed.  Alkman is "probably no less hungry" but something has changed in us.   Alkman has enabled us to see what we had not seen previously, and he has made something - call it a work of art, fragmentary though it may at first appear - that is perfect, that is even characterized as more than perfect.  Art allows "the mind to experience itself," to "make sense" of the "unexpected."   From art "a lesson can be learned," and through its "mistake" it "blurts out the truth."  Error, as Aristotle had postulated, allows us to "get hold of something new and fresh."  It leaps beyond syllogism and a careful and parsed rationality to do what the Chinese proverb Carson earlier quoted insists is impossible.  For it turns out, by the conclusion of this poem, the proverb "Brush cannot write two characters with one stroke" is itself an error.

Yet something has changed in the quotient of our expectations.
For in mistaking them,
Alkman has perfected something.
Indeed he has
more than perfected something.
Using a single brushstroke.

I realize that as we have approached the end of this poem, it has turned - as so often poems do - into being about poetry.  Carson leads us there.  But I think she means to go beyond poetry, that poetry is used here as a metaphor for human existence.  (The concluding stanzas, then, are themselves a "mistake," as Aristotle claimed metaphor always is.)  For Carson's essay is ultimately not about something as limited as 'the need for poetry;' no, it is about how error need not be crippling.  We can survive error, learn from it, make something new of it: not just a poem, but a life.




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