Essay: The Feel of Thinking – Sarah Howe on lyric connections and incisions

Can lyric think? I want to work towards this question of poetics by way of a related one in philosophy, whose crispest articulation I’ve yet found swims up in the course of a long, fragmentary lyric by Denise Riley: ‘It is called feeling but is its real name thought?’ This line from ‘A Shortened Set’ unpicks the traditional opposition between thought and feeling, which holds that immersion in one diminishes or even precludes the other. In terms of poetic history it’s a notion we might associate with the Romantics – recall Keats’s jibe at ‘consequitive reasoning’ – though they simply revived a still older view of reason and emotion as fundamentally at odds. As Riley the philosopher is aware, this internal division within the psyche was also traditionally a gendered distinction. Along with feeling, mental operations such as intuition and belief aren’t usually granted the status of thinking. Yet it’s these hinterlands of thought that have the most to tell us about contemporary poetry and its relationship to consciousness. I want to touch on two poets whose work offers us, in very different ways, a picture of thinking in action – what Wallace Stevens called ‘The poem of the act of the mind.’

Riley’s poetic countenancing of ‘feeling thought’ runs strikingly in parallel with recent neurobiological accounts of consciousness. Equipped with brain scanners, neuroscientists try to reveal the materialistic basis of thinking, stressing its bodily roots in emotion and sensation. Both are brought together in Riley’s single word, ‘feeling’, whose meanings encompass a range of human capabilities from the physical sense of touch, to the condition of being emotionally affected, to intuitive beliefs not requiring proof. Her body of work describes thinking in vividly material terms – ‘A twist of thought is pinned there’ (‘A Shortened Set’) – displacing consciousness into the poems’ unpleating textiles and swirling pigments. Poetry is language with a heightened consciousness of its material embodiment in voice and writing – its feel in all the senses just enumerated. We should stay alert therefore to a cognitive as well as an affective dimension inhering in such features of poems as rhythm and syntax. As William Carlos Williams said, ‘A new music is a new mind.’

My title comes from a passage in Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. His protagonist tries to articulate what it’s like to read John Ashbery’s poems:

Ashbery’s flowing sentences always felt as if they were making sense, but when you looked up from the page, it was impossible to say what sense had been made […] Reading an Ashbery sentence, an elaborate sentence stretched over many lines, one felt the arc and feel of thinking in the absence of thoughts.

Lerner’s narrator reaches for a characteristically Ashberian metaphor to describe the self-reflexive turn in his reading: ‘as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading.’ Reflective rather than transparent (with a pun on ‘reflection’ in the sense of mental introspection), these are poems that bounce one’s attention back onto the very act of attending to them. Lerner’s phrase, the ‘feel of thinking’, refers primarily to the texture of Ashbery’s syntax, with its parade of logical connectives (‘but’, ‘therefore’, ‘so’) and temporal markers (‘then’, ‘next’, ‘later’) that point towards argumentative or narrative progression without actually delivering them. The effect can be at different times seamlessly dreamlike or jarringly parodic. It’s as though the movement of his sentences opens a window onto the mind’s hidden engines, humming just beneath our conscious states.

I find myself wondering if Lerner’s phrase has at the back of its mind TS Eliot’s famous dictum about the dissociation of sensibility that followed the metaphysical poets: ‘Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.’ What might it mean for a poet to ‘feel’ his or her ‘thought’? Eliot championed the so-called ‘metaphysical’ poets of the seventeenth century for their efforts ‘to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling.’ Such poets are marked out, for Eliot, by their ‘rapid association of thought’, giving rise to a sensibility that can discern connections between such disparate experiences as falling in love, reading Spinoza, the noise of a typewriter and the smell of cooking. Eliot’s penultimate item always reminds me of those lines from Ashbery’s ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’: ‘And before you know / It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters’. It’s just like Ashbery to transform the sound of purposive writerly activity into consciousness’s white noise.

In a fascinating essay on Donne and modern cognitive science, AS Byatt argues that Donne does indeed feel his thought, but what he makes his readers feel is less Eliot’s odour of the rose than ‘the peculiar excitement and pleasure of mental activity itself’. She wonderfully dubs Donne a ‘glassy’ poet, since glass is something you can look at and through simultaneously (incidentally the very property of glass that makes it such a choice vehicle for metaphysical conceits). Among the moderns, Byatt attributes similar qualities to Wallace Stevens – think only of the perceptual conundrums of ‘The Glass of Water’: ‘In the metaphysical,’ that poem claims, ‘there are these poles’. For her, what the poems of Donne and Stevens offer is not sensations per se but the ‘process of sensing’, not concepts but the ‘idea of the relations of concepts.’

We now think of metaphysical poems as driven by figures of thought known as ‘conceits,’ though that term was not one Donne or Marvell would have recognized. The conceit is a variety of extreme or far- fetched metaphor in which (according to Dr Johnson’s disapproving definition) the ‘most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. The real point of these associative ligatures is that they don’t quite hold, whether connecting the human soul to a drop of dew or parting lovers to stiff twin compasses. Critics have long recognized how this most celebrated image of Donne’s, from ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, finally breaks down: the compasses’ arcing foot cannot ‘come home’ to the fixed foot at the centre and, at the same time, inscribe the circumference’s ‘circle just’. Colin Burrow pinpoints how Marvell’s drop of dew similarly ‘makes the mind’s eye dazzle […] as one attempts to work out how anything could be “Like its own tear”’. Ultimately impossible to visualize, these emblematic conceits take the form, as Donne phrases it in another poem, of ‘pictures made and marred’.

Can the poetic conceit, reshaped in Ashbery’s hands, tell us anything new about the mechanisms of consciousness? In these lines from ‘Wet Casements’, an opening ‘conception’ prepares for the metaphysical conceit (the words are cognate) to follow:

The conception is interesting: to see, as though reflected
In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through
Their own eyes. A digest of the correct impressions of
Their self-analytical attitudes overlaid by your
Ghostly transparent face.

Michael Robbins reads this poem as a metaphorical staging of the philosophical problem of other minds, probing our justifications for the belief that others experience inner lives akin to our own. The difficulty of the poem’s ‘conception’ lies in its layering of optical paradoxes. Its fluctuation of perspectives depends on the preposition ‘through’ at the end of the second line, which potentially points in opposite directions: are we peering in to the eyes of others to discern the signs of selfhood, or staring out through their eyes in an act of imaginative projection? The problem is magnified by the ‘streaming windowpanes’, whose trembling curtain of rain introduces an optical wobble into the frame: the distortion of unacknowledged tears perhaps? In a trick learnt from Stevens, Ashbery revels in setting a chain of cooly involuted abstractions (‘A digest of the correct impressions of / Their self-analytical attitudes…’) against the sudden haunting of ‘Ghostly transparent face’.

In its play of transparencies and proliferating reflections, ‘Wet Casements’ recalls Donne’s ‘A Valediction of My Name, in the Window’:

’Tis much that glass should be
As all-confessing, and through-shine as I;
’Tis more, that it shows thee to thee,
And clear reflects thee to thine eye.

Claiming for his soul the transparency of glass, Donne’s lover has scratched his name into the surface of his mistress’s window to serve as a reminder through the span of their parting. As she looks through her casement she will see his name overlaid on her own reflected face, a figure for their oneness even in separation: ‘But all such rules love’s magic can undo, / Here you see me, and I am you.’ The predicament of the separated lovers in Donne’s Valediction poems echoes through Ashbery’s work: ‘We are together at last, though far apart’ (‘The Ecclesiast’). This repeated Ashberian scenario of confronting self-in-other at the limen of a reflective surface comes to stand not for the spiritual reunion of lovers, but to figure more generally the encounter between poetic ‘I’ and reader: ‘A look of glass stops you / And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?’ (‘As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat’).

Some critics have noted a possibly fruitful relationship between Ashbery’s (early) work and the poems of Denise Riley. They certainly have tools and proclivities in common: their famously mobile pronouns, including the floating intimacies of ‘I’ and ‘you’, or the adventures of ‘it’ unmoored from antecedents; their incorporation of poached colloquial snippets, fragments of popsong, into the fabric of their thought; their shared fascination with American abstract expressionist painting; their penchant for paradox. And yet it’s fascinating to see how similar devices can still give rise to utterly different poetic sensibilities: Ashbery’s basically genial disposition with its flashes of baffling pathos, versus Riley’s enveloping air of melancholy leavened by a wry ear for irony and bathos. Riley too is interested in channeling the metaphysicals, but not their overt conceits so much as their undercurrent of song. In ‘Rep’, she calls on ‘some silent throat’ to ‘step up / Unlock a Marvell karaoke’: Marvell, that is, stripped of his original vocals, reduced to pure backing track.

In Riley’s hands, paradox is less the stuff of showy metaphysical conundrums than akin to a Penelope weaving and unravelling the fabric of her thought. Riley’s work contains, as Andrea Brady has noted, many passages that ‘oscillate dramatically between assertion and retraction’, a self-negating dynamic visible in her very definition of lyric:

Stammering it fights to get held and to never get held
as whatever motors it swells to hammer itself out on me              (‘Lyric’)

This ‘[s]tammering’ lyric impulse surges and retreats, at once desperate for the tactile intimacy of embrace and shying from its grasp. However, the romantic lyric voice here is not the index of a longing subjectivity, but is more like an automatic product of pulse and cadence, as ‘whatever motors it swells’ underlines. Riley’s invocation of this motorized thrum recalls ‘When It’s Time to Go’, a poem that similarly disclaims lyric inwardness: ‘No this isn’t me, it’s just my motor running’. What strikes me latterly about the opening lines of ‘Lyric’ is Riley’s use of the auxiliary verb ‘get’, its brunt revelling in the demotic: ‘No, nothing ever gets learnt’ (‘They saw you coming’). In Riley’s poems this auxiliary ‘get’ serves almost to negotiate a middle way between the active and passive voices, strenuous even as it capitulates. In the essay ‘“A Voice Without a Mouth”: Inner Speech’ (2004), Riley considered the phenomenon of the inner voice in terms highly suggestive for approaching the shifting voices embedded in her poems:

For inner speech is no limpid stream of consciousness, crystalline from its uncontaminated source in Mind, but a sludgy thing, thickened with reiterated quotation, choked with the rubble of the overheard, […] the embarrassing detritus of advertising, archaic injunctions from hymns, and the pastel snatches of old song lyrics.

Indeed, some of the poems are explicitly attributed to this mouthless inner voice. ‘Affections of the Ear’ is a monologue ‘spoken’ by Ovid’s Echo. The divinely authored speech impediment that left her capable only of ironic iteration means the poem is transposed into a mental key: ‘My inward ears will jam wide open to internal words that overlying verbiage can’t smother’. In a similar vein, ‘Wherever You Are, Be Somewhere Else’ figures its Echo-like speaker as ‘a million surfaces without a tongue and I have never wanted / “a voice” anyway, nor got it’. Riley’s concept of ‘inner speech’ as a sort of linguistic unconscious troubles the boundary between self and other, individual and collective, making it ‘conceivable that the unconscious is better imagined not as a deep pouch of self, but as something outside of it, and hanging between people.’

It is often noted that Riley’s poems are insistently multivocal, one voice bleeding into another in a way that suggests both music and abstract painting: ‘pastel snatches of old song lyrics’, as her essay puts it. ‘Lure, 1963’ interweaves two varieties of ekphrasis, splicing 1960s song lyrics into its description of a painting by Gillian Ayres:

Navy near-black cut in with lemon, fruity bright lime green.
I roam around around around around acidic yellows, globe
oranges burning, slashed cream, huge scarlet flowing
anemones, barbaric pink singing, radiant weeping When
will I be loved?

A trace of the artist’s guiding hand, or palette knife, remains at ‘cut in’. This painterly ‘cut’ picks up an idea running throughout Mop Mop Georgette (1993), that artistic creation might simultaneously take the form of an iconoclastic cutting. ‘[I]t’s a torn and tattered naturalism,’ Riley explained in an interview with Romana Huk of 1995, ‘It describes a sense of perforation or disintegration […] And it’s a speaker which understands itself to be penetrable and torn, like a sheet of fabric which can be ripped through’ (‘In Conversation with Denise Riley’). That such cutting also has a psychic dimension is suggested by ‘A Misremembered Lyric’:

‘Something’s gotta hold of my heart
tearing my’ soul and my conscience apart

‘A Shortened Set’ opens with the act of surgically cutting into a gendered body, evoking a hazy event Riley has elsewhere identified as a botched abortion:

All the connectives of right recall
have gone askew: I know
a child could have lived, that
my body was cut. This cut…

The ‘connectives’ skewed by this traumatic recall are at once physical tissues in the body and the mental linkages of consecutive thinking. The tears and tatters built into the texture of Riley’s lyric remind me of Georges Didi-Huberman’s attempt, in Devant L’Image (1990), to write a history of a type of painting that incorporates into itself the failure of representation, for which his evocative term is the déchirure, or rend. One of his most powerful examples is the way Gothic painters sometimes portrayed the wound in Christ’s side not by applying threads of red paint, but by using an instrument to cut or scrape at the panel’s gilded surface, revealing its crimson underpainting. This form of representation, which is ‘rent, breached, ruined’ at its centre, opens up internal spaces ‘from which it draws its power, […] the power of the negative’. Pictures made and marred.

Back to ‘Lure, 1963’: its ventriloquized song lyrics further interrupt, cut into, the painting’s surface. In line two, ‘I roam around around around around’ co-opts the refrain of ‘The Wanderer’, the song of the early ’60s by Ernest Maresca. For Zoe Skoulding, the line enacts ‘the wandering of the lyric “I”, dislodged here from an anchoring selfhood.’ The ekphrasis’s neat alternation between visual and sonic begins to break down at ‘barbaric pink singing, radiant weeping’ with its synesthetic blur. Abstract colour takes on an auditory dimension, before jolting once again into what the poem calls ‘Obsessive song’: ‘When / will I be loved?’ The full lyric by the Everly Brothers runs, ‘I’ve been made blue. I’ve been lied to. / When will I be loved?’, revealing Riley’s impishly submerged pun on ‘blue’ as colour and emotional state. As Riley writes in The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (2000), ‘Perhaps emotionality, too, has its own external quality. It can arrive from the outside’. After a session reading Mop Mop Georgette, I often find myself plagued by earworms that surface, sometimes hours later, to mindlessly circuit my inner ear. On the one hand, Riley’s snatches of popsong feel like the banal and commodified clichés of mass culture. On the other, it’s hard to resist the temptation to hear them as emotive self-revelations, which might lift a veil onto the poem’s ‘true’ and vulnerable speaker. This sense of lyric revelation is of course illusory, being a matter of the listener’s private projections – that is Riley’s point.

Let us return now to the philosophical provocation of Riley’s with which I began, resituating it this time in the surge and ebb of its poem’s uneasy music:

It is called feeling but is its real name thought?
Moons in their spheres are not so bland as these.
A round O says I feel and all agree. (‘A Shortened Set’)

The two following lines complicate the question asked in the first, going so far as to recast it as ‘bland’ cliché. The third line settles into regular pentameter, its rhythm tugged at only by the tidal dilation of ‘O’. The swell of sound and feeling represented by the lyric ‘O’ is always ironic in Riley. Another of her poems breaks into over-egged apostrophe, ‘O great classic cadences of English poetry / We blush to hear thee lie’ (‘When It’s Time to Go’), with its subversive misremembering of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. The Christmas carol ‘revs the lyric ‘motors’ rather too insistently. To follow the currents of Riley’s thinking, we need to feel her poems’ variable pulse, the rhythmical underpinnings to their ironical give-and-take.

I want to end with ‘Sorrow alone reveals its constant pulse’, published in the Summer 2014 issue of Poetry London. It is one of only a handful of poems by Riley
to have appeared since 2012’s ‘A Part Song’, her devastating lament for the death of her adult son. This recent poem shows Riley continuing to test the metrical and other musical effects honed in the twenty short lyrics comprising ‘A Part Song’:

A trusted oak deceives a pliant back
coiled into it like a fern shoot aping
an archbishop’s crook, held high as
an emblem of truth paraded through
hazy woods in its veil, to get snapped
off by a beautiful soul’s wild anxiety
pacing around its homemade jail of
catastrophic thought, quit by a slash
clean down to the dear bone. It wills
to twitch its hem aside then motor on.
Let no air now be sung, let no kind air.

‘Sorrow alone reveals its constant pulse’ unfolds in a supple blank verse whose formal music, along with an archaic strain in its diction and word order, casts back to the seventeenth century: ‘Let no air now be sung, let no kind air.’ The sinuous tactility of ‘pliant back’ and ‘fern shoot aping’ recall the flexible ‘hope’ held out by ‘A Part Song’: ‘You principle of song, what are you for now […] Slim as a whippy wire / Shall be your hope, and ultraflexible.’ The poem’s elastic negotiations with the ‘constant pulse’ of abstract metre both reflect on and challenge Donne’s contention that ‘Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, / For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.’ Combining philosophical and musical enquiry, this is work that shares a kinship with Stevens’ ‘metaphysician in the dark, twanging / An instrument’. Riley’s lyric thinking struggles, as she puts it, to keep its ‘balance on a thin and fragile layer of cadence’ (‘In Conversation’). Such is her embodied principle of song.

Sarah Howe’s first collection, A Loop of Jade (Chatto), is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.