Sunday, April 08, 2007

Romanticism in Tanka

I have decided to post some of the essays I have written in discussions on email lists to my blog because I think they contain useful information and it makes sense to have my writings together in one place.

While media res (in the middle of things) is a good technique, it isn't the only one. A person could just as well begin at the beginning and omit the end, or present the end and let us guess the beginning and middle. It depends on the nature of the scene presented. Likewise, a narrative can be complete. When we talk about these techniques what we are really talking about is multivalency, which is to say, the ability of the poem to evoke more than it depicts. I would hate to pin the poet down to one particular technique for doing this.

With regards to romanticism, it is Romanticism (not romance) that I object to, and I do think there is a difference. Romanticism is not the only means by which the natural world can be appreciated;
Romanticism is a particular method, which, while engaging the natural world, also insulates us from it. There are various useful analyses of Romanticism online. Wikipedia provides a useful introduction:; while pulls material from various standard references, including the Encyclopedia of American History at: Emerson and Poe are examples of American Romantics, Byron and Scott were a couple of English ones.

At their best Romantics introduced us to subject matter and points of view that had been invisible before; Gericault's 'The Raft of the Medusa' is a singularly Romantic and horrific view of an actual
tragedy that stunned the world (see:éodore_Géricault). Surely we must appreciate Gericault for connecting us with the suffering of the survivors of a shipwreck who were abandoned by their captain to save his own skin, but do we really think that his highly charged picture is an accurate representation of what actually happened? No, the picture engages us with its emotional intensity which tells us a truth we need to see, but it is not an accurate reproduction of the tragedy itself.

Romanticism is powerful stuff and has had an effect on modern Western culture and how we experience it. while Denis made an earlier point about the 21st century being exposed to much that is brutal, as we can see, horror has never been exempted from the Romantic view; 'The Fall of the House of Usher' is as much a part of the tradition as is 'On Walden Pond.' To the extent that we allow Romanticism to sanitize nature and our interaction with it, it is as much a disservice as ignoring nature completely.

Since people are reluctant to critique poetry by fellow poets, I shall offer some verses of my own that I regard as embodying Romanticism to illustrate my points.

At the water's edge
trees rustle in a cool breeze
not yet felt in town;
sloops at anchor turns their heads
to face the gathering storm

her screw
still turning as she
went down,
the Sarah C. Conway,
dead at 114

what spirit flew
out of this hole
in winter’s snow?
on the other side
a flock of geese

A storm, a shipwreck, and a spirit, all deeply grounded in the traditional culture/folk art of the Chesapeake Bay. If that's not Romanticism, I don't know what is.

I was already familiar with Romanticism in various forms; like many I read the novels of Walter Scott and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, looked at art and even did some art history study, but it was not until I was reviewing article about Romanticism online that it came into focus and I saw exactly how I was participating in, insulated by, and using Romanticism in my own work, most especially my poetry of place. It's very hard to articulate to others what it is that makes the Chesapeake Bay and its traditional culture so special; Romanticism, with its appreciation for folk art and the common man. With its emphasis on nature, and its vivid, emotional images, makes an excellent tool for depicting my subject matter.

But it certainly isn't the only tool. I don't think it's the best tool, either. I don't know what the best tool is, but I know that it is thoroughly grounded in plain, unadorned reality. Yet Realism
( is an inadequate tool for what I am doing as well. There are many valid critiques of Realism, not the least is that Realism cannot include everything, therefore Realism makes selections, and by the selections made, shapes our perceptions. This is why the camera is a liar, it presents only what the photographer wanted us to see. Don't believe me? If you stand at the same vantage point from which the picture was taken, can you see what is behind you? Of course not. You can't see around corners, either.

Is it possible to see behind the photographer in a poem as short as tanka? I think that it is. Denis calls it 'dreaming room,' I have called it the 'labyrinth of the poem.' What we are both trying to
describe is the ability of a tanka to serve as a sort of lens gathering both visible and invisible light to illuminate our experience. The best tanka do indeed see around corners. The absolutely fascinating thing about them is that the scenes are not static, but change depending on the viewer's perspective.

Looking at Gericault's 'The Raft of the Medusa,' the artist's view of the scene is overwhelming; there is no room for any other way of seeing it. The artist has drawn us into his reality and made us experience something that we wouldn't have otherwise. This is powerful stuff, and by no means bad -- but it isn't what tanka is about. A person looking at 'Medusa' would never think to turn around and try to imagine what _isn't_ depicted in the painting.

At first glance, my treatment of the wreck of the Sarah C. Conway appears 'realistic,' but it isn't. It is pure Romanticism. My treatment is deliberately stripped of emotional language; it is the
opposite of how Gericault treated his shipwreck. I used the language of obituaries (dead at 114) to personify the ship and represent drowned seamen everywhere. My particular choice of details evokes the ancient age of the vessel, likewise my choice of the colloquial, nearly archaic term 'screw' situates the vessel as originating in a much older but defined period of time, and by depicting its death, symbolizing the death of the traditional Chesapeake Bay culture associated with the same time frame.

Does the poem work? Reluctantly, I am obliged to think that it will succeed with only a very narrow segment of the readership, namely, those who know about the Sarah C. Conway. Alas, not even Google knows her story. By contrast, Gericault's painting, precisely because it tells us how to experience the event, succeeds with just about everyone. Very little exterior knowledge is necessary to grasp the meaning of 'The Raft of the Medusa,' but without considerable exterior knowledge, my tanka on the wreck of the Sarah C. Conway means little.

My effort in this particular poem was to apply the trope of Romanticism but strip it of its authorial authority in order to provide dreaming reader for the reader. I think this approach offers possibilities and will continue to study and experiment with it. The older poem, 'water's edge' (notice the 5-7-5-7-7 form) I think is a more successful blending of techniques, but seems to have failed to capture an audience. I don't know if that's because the poem fails, or if the subject matter is simply not appealing to the audience.

By contrast, 'what spirit flew' is more overtly Romantic, the language is not realistic even though it invokes real and ordinary images. Snow does not have 'holes' and spirits do not fly through them, but this tanka evokes mythology to create an emotional truth even though it is not an accurate description of physical reality. The disconnection between physical reality and the poem is more obvious here than in the superficially realistic depictions of the other two poems; of the three poems I think it works the best as poetry but is furtherest away from my personal goals for artistic


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