/ by Cliff McCormick

Of substance

It strikes me, just now.

How a poem can capture with its form.
Its evocative beauty.
It’s abrupt “entre.”

Quickly – bynote .


Like so. *grin*

And perchance woo’d by the seeming,
Invited by its subtle gleaming,
You find yourself careening
Toward that farther shore,


     It seems perhaps that we are engaged by proportion and order and symmetry, irrespective of an acquaintance with mathematic’s methods and notations, there is something in these elements of form and format that speak to, I think, a very resonant fundamental quality of our humanity, such as it is, coupled with our intelligence.

     And this makes a lot of sense, in that through time our development as a species has relied on the gradual accumulation of syntheses that we call technologies, often, the foundations of these discoveries have been rooted in a quest for an aesthetic beauty; an admiration of form. This cannot be discounted in the making of a work of art, or a poem….the potency of form alone; the delivery, the feel, the look. Even a haphazard assemblage of components can be made to exhibit form ergo content.

     Then there is the matter of content; semantics, the meaning of what is said in the work, the poem, the book, the equation, the song. This runs the gamut, as it beautifully should, in logical accord with the character of disparate authors. Which is to say, different minds will say different things for different reasons with varying degrees of success, often based on time, experience and motivated inclination and application, but I digress.

     Poems are interesting because in them we find this wonderful collision of form and content. I think it the hallmark of a master when these elements are in balance and complementary proportion. One could argue on the basis of mathematics alone that a proper observation of proportion moves a work a step closer to something that might be more "universally apropos." I find these qualities elegant – valuable "heuristic tools" of – which is to say, that the more broadly a theory or statement can be applied, the more useful that statement or theory is, as a “metal detector for meaning” – a tool for separating the “signal from the noise.”

     e.e. cummings pioneered many effective exploitations; expressions of form. A hallmark of his work. His creative disregard of customary and expected elements of proper form.. and in so doing, he often managed to be

-- even more precise than what the “rules” would have you do.


     Though he kept content firmly in tow. I think of his metaphorical use of a car being described in a state of escalating (almost alarmingly; out of control) careening into an a imaginary field, spent and exhausted.…and he breaks it up -- in little chunks…     just so, -- such that one sees the literal car of the narrative, in concert with a parallel narrative, that rather explicitly describes a robust and engaging sexual encounter. Wonderful work and balance. And it is precisely that balance; mastery of form and content, that allow for an artist like cummings to express the multiple narratives, threads, and expressions.

     It’s wonderful.

     T.S. Eliot – in particular his earlier work, is so potent a concentration of unbridled young intellect challenging its-self to contribution after a thorough observation of those who had gone before…and he managed to, in this authors opinion, further the forms in which he participated, notably poetry and his essays on the the art of critique. T.S. Eliot was not nearly as experimental with form as someone like ee cummings, which is to say he didn’t break up words and substitute spellings and get creative with punctuation, though he of course dabbled…but what TS Eliot focused on was an absolute precision of expression that almost disallows misinterpretation. That is rare. Rarer still if it is beautiful. (Again…beauty, symmetry, visceral ringings…almost light a lighthouse; guiding.)

   Eliot managed to experiment heavily with the surreal to express very concrete, and generally, universally resonant human emotions and experiences. Interesting is the “narrative voice” and perspective of his work. Almost like he had to remove himself from “the picture” in order to capture its beauty, because he knew if he painted himself into the picture, he couldn’t even begin to encompass it in any frame that he could attempt to create, express, construct, conceive, wring into being, while subject to the ”passions” of involved-experience.
   One of my favorite poems is his “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”

                                               --- FORM AND CONTENT –

     One simple model for these is something like an infinity symbol; an 8 lying on its side; imagined to be two balloons inflated and conjoined at the center. If you squeeze the balloon on the right, the left side inflates a little more, if you squeeze on the left, the right receives more of the “internal energy/creative force/material/substance” and so it inflates a bit more.

      If one balloon was content and the other form; exceptional concentration on form alone, may come at the cost of diminished content. Conversely, proportionally more focus on squeezing the “content-ballon” may result in diminished form. An excess of either area can break the “message” of the work entire…and it’s this balance between things that allows for resonant expression. So that knowledge that can be passed on to the observer, reader, audience, posterity.

     By developing your singular aesthetic, through study; the systematic exposure to, and assimilation of, the foundational texts and records in primary fields of inquiry…this is like gathering tools and techniques and clay to build your own works – eventually you begin to more consciously manipulate proportions of form and content to best suit and manifest “intention.”

     I am reminded of a quote often ascribed to Issac Newton, something along the lines of

    “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

     Which seems an acknowledgement of the fact that the human story is one of brief accumulation and advancement, hopefully followed by a record, so that those that come later, can take that baton and keep running with it, keep advancing in potency of expression, and subject of content…in technique…expanding precedent and achievement.

                                                               -    -     -

     -Prufrock is I think an important work because it represents a profound synthesis of much of the classical perspective, but also the results of the industrial revolution and age, the changing perception of our humanity in the midst of the first world war…he blends the mélange of Shakespeare and the Greeks with a formidable foundation of substantial western-anglo poets, in addtition, he was well acquainted with eastern traditions and works…perhaps that is where some of his more ambitious surreal expressions spring from – he often expresses an awareness of the inevitable attrition of “time”, and the encroachment of death – and he laments it openly, while calling out, making what seemed to him a knowingly futile note in the stillness of fluid time.

     Starkness and beauty; often in concert.

     Eliot paired a novel distillation of western prose, with his observations of the human experience and condition, leaning heavily male and masculine, owing to his time and the circumstance of his observation. Much can be gleaned of his time and his sense of history and of his sense of our place in it…much, done well. I remember the first time I began “Prufrock”…I was compelled to place the book, print-down, on my pillow, so that I could better marvel at its brilliance. Words and phrases flow largely logically, in adherence to form and expectation, all the while he manages a musicality and an aesthetic “ring,” while painting new portraits of the human experience, that had not existed before. And he captured these words in that brief window of his life in which he was capable of doing so.

     That is another whole aspect of artists and their art; their location in their arc of learning. When he wrote Prufrock he was a younger person, he still had experiences and questions he had not even known would come, or that he would be forced to contemplate and answer. Life changes. And there is a universality to so much of the experience..the blindness of youth…and the necessity of life’s navigation nevertheless. T.S. Eliot captured…a lot of this in his work…Prufrock marks…a special synthesis…of time, an age, and the state of the form (poetry) and essays at his time….there are tenors of ambition that only exists when of a certain age, when one if forgiven the brashness of an expectation of time… much is there in his work; well done.

     Then there are poets like Pierre Reverdy who was somewhere between these two. Nowhere near as proper or concerned with a certain kind of crispness…Reverdywas a pioneer of unconcerned surrealism. The joining of disparate ideas, scene, milieus and concepts with respect to both their independent and collective existence without stopping to think if that interpretation comports with conventional expectation and acceptance.

     A flying bird with the smudge of an ant body, on a bar top, trapped in an errant bead, of water perspired from a beers stein…though more…comparing the laughing of a woman in a red dress, to the leanings of the buildings on particular street, the creamy chalk of a lamplight with the terror or a midnight creak….the funny smoke that exudes from hopeful things in desperate places…

     And yet to achieve …the creation of abstract novelty that still bears a communicable meaning…he had to so very carefully balance his form and content. He couldn’t have the disregard of cummings because it would lack the necessary form to convey the content. Part of cumming’s work was the disregard itself, while Reverdy had a different specific intention; as though to invoke a particular feeling, mode or image, a moment.
     And so he had to carefully pick the elements of his subject that created these inspirations…like..what exactly about the smell of autumn leaves brings with it strong associations of the fall season, and the temperature etc etc..what is it? To attempt the expression of the “qualia” of a thing..the essence of its most resonant qualities…you have to be brave enough to think new things and venture new comparisons, but you have to be adept enough at bringing these ideas together in a form that can communicate this synthesis while leaving the work itself, independent of the expectations of outcome.