Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Thinking more today about Lisa's poem and our discussions of attention to "interior" and "exterior" realities, I thought I'd share with you what I think is one of Robert Lowell's better poems, also a walk poem:

Skunk Hour

(For Elizabeth Bishop)

Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill—
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love. . . ." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody's here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Note how the speaker uses external realities in the landscape to intimate or evoke internal realities; of course, any distinction between interior and exterior is at best provisional (Yeats: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"), but we may take these to mean, in the context of a walk poem, ideas and images in the speaker's mind (interior) and realities "out there" in the physical landscape (exterior). Note for example how the skunk is used as a vehicle to connote the mental state of the speaker, or a contrary corollary that, unlike the speaker, "will not scare." Likewise, all the images of ruin and disrepair ("winter," "dotage," "eyesores" that "fall," the ill season and auctioned-off yawl, and so on): "exterior" corollaries for the speaker's "interior" (mental) condition. Also note the "love-cars" that "lay together . . . / where the graveyard shelves on the town," so love and death mingle in this metonymic image, which in turn reminds us of the effete shoreside imagery in the preceding stanzas, and then, too, the bodies of lovers who "lay together" inside the cars/"hulls." And then finally, the subjective correlative: "My mind's not right," and again later, "I myself am hell; / nobody's here--" But the focus is simultaneously "outside" and "inside," or the one reality evokes (provokes?) the other.

Another approach to this business of focusing outward versus inward, or outward so to go more carefully inward, here's a paraphrase and explanation of T.S. Eliot's idea of an objective correlative, which you may find valuable as you consider how "inside" and "outside" do and do not interact in the imagination:

A term introduced by T.S Eliot in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919). Eliot observes that there is something in Hamlet which Shakespeare cannot “drag into the light, contemplate, or manipulate into art,” at least not in the same way that he can with Othello’s jealousy, or Coriolanus’ pride. He goes on to deduce that “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in a sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked” (Selected Essays, [London: Faber and Faber, 1951], pp. 144-5).
Eliot’s brief remark had a history far beyond this initial, occasional, context, offering a tag-phrase for the mysterious way in which art communicates emotion by providing the reader or perceiver with a set of representations in which the emotion may not be actually present but which nevertheless serve to communicate that emotion. He goes on to say “If you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by the skillful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions .... The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion, and this is what is deficient in Hamlet.”
Eliot’s judgement on Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’ lesser plays has struck many critics as odd. Nevertheless his idea, although more impressionistic than rigorous, seemed apt to many critics over the next sixty years, being taught to many students until more sophisticated theories became available in the later 1960s. This was an idea which was of its time, as we can discern in its similarity to the slightly earlier doctrines of the Imagists
(1912), and notably those of Ezra Pound who was close to Eliot at this time, concerning the use of concrete poetic images to communicate emotions to the reader, doctrines which appear to have influenced Eliot’s “The Waste Land" (1922). Similarly, the objective correlative finds echoes in Freud’s understanding of how symbolic representations such as dreams, or indeed such a play as Hamlet itself, speak with great emotional force because addressing repressed thoughts and desires.
For Freud on Hamlet see his essays “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) and “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage” (written in 1904 but only published posthumously in 1942).

Click here for the complete essay, "Hamlet and His Problems"

For an approach to the subjective contrary to T.S. Eliot's, see Robert Kelly's definition of the precise subjective. The key word here is precise, and I think that both Eliot and Kelly would argue that it's the imprecisions of the subjective in language that lead to bad art.

Viz expression of interior states or conditions of being, check out Elaine Scarry's The Body In Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. In my opinion, this book should be required reading for all writers. Among other things, it explores the ontology of pain and the place of language in expressing pain.

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