Saturday, September 12, 2015

Ruth Stone's "Am I"

One poem in "In the Dark" prompted multiple readings and analysis to ask of it the means of its making.  The poem is the fascinating "Am I", which if you haven't done so, please read it on pp. 21-22 before proceeding further.

"Am I" makes the whole poem, its labyrinth of twists and turns until the end of all of not knowing Am I into more not knowing of "Am I crazy?" You are outside looking in, as the speaker of the poem was at the Boston Psychopathic, so the poem is outside looking in asking you the reader "Am I crazy?".  Not past tense: is the poem, too, crazy?  Is the reader outside judging the speaker crazy?  Well, the poet takes the reader inside the mind of the speaker to ask:  are the speaker, poet, poem, and reader all crazy?  And how can you tell unless you experience what the speaker experiences.
  
"Am I" has another inference.  Do I exist?  Is this madness a dream or is reality a dream?  How do I know I exist if I am crazy and the Freudian psychoanalyst's sanity is crazier than the supposed crazy one? In fact, he appears as much a danger to the speaker's condition of what or who "Am I."

I am going to tie this to the brilliant Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley's famous poetic insight "Form is Content" and to one of the many great masterful poems of Wallace Stevens entitled "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven."

Quickly. events such as husband's suicide and where and when she sees Dr. Leigh, tennis player, who is a neurosurgeon, which probably in those days meant a lobotomist, become jumbled, and we begin to lose track of cause and effect, splicings of conversation of other people, places, poets (Keats, equally famous for his definition of a poet as one who is able to live in "negative capability"). The twist and turn jumble ever faster as the poem takes us all over the place, the world, like a psychosis or a paranoid is supposed to speak like...then saying this to the Dr...so inside the Boston Psychopathic, inside the speaker's speeding mind... associating words, events, people with what next comes to mind.

Form is never more than an extension and is inseparable from the content of the poem, Creeley was pointing out to readers and poets alike. Form is the content, has meaning, and is saying something in the poem. The poem may be in form that you actually have to read it as a kind of content in the same way as you do the content (either reinforcing, off against, interplay, or instant of describing the content.)

That is, how you say something in a poem is more important than what you say, and this poem is a good example of this approach to writing a poem:  how you say what is said in a poem is what you say in the poem.  It is what the poet self makes through language that is what the poetry does in the poem not what the purported descriptions and narrative telling the reading what it is.  The modernist poem is not about what it is or about content primarily; it is about form that determines the content with the content arising from the form of the poem.

Ruth Stone is using the form as content, as well, describing the condition the speaker is suffering under by poetically bringing the reader inside what its like to be, appear to be, or not know whether you are "crazy" by juxtapositions, leaps with no nets, surreal jumbling of events, suspending time and space and cause and effect, time traveling in the mind throughout the world in matter of minutes.  She gives you the experience of chaos:  she shows and doesn't not merely tell the reader about the experience.

Wallace Stevens in Section XII of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," says much the same thing in his own way when he says that

     The poem is the cry of its occasion,
     Part of the res itself and not about it.
     The poet speaks the poem as it is,...

The poem is always about the making of itself and is not about anything outside of itself.  It is not a function of description of a narrative of the poet, necessarily, or even the speaker of the poem, all of the time.  In other words, a poem at its best takes the reader where the senses stop making sense; it reveals to the reader the reality that exists behind and in between the lines, rearranging how the reader experiences things and existence.

The great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once ended a poem, "You must change your life."  That is what this way of poetry does:  it changes your life by transforming how you put language, words, and images together at a primal level, where every human lives every moment of their lives.

I thought I'd throw a different way of interpreting one of her poems in hopes of stimulating your readings and ideas.