Poetry, Whatsoever: Blake, Blau DuPlessis, and an Expansive Definition of the Poem

By | 1 May 2019

The sitcom Jam & Jerusalem was written by Jennifer Saunders and Abigail Wilson. It is about a group of village women who belong to a small branch of the Women’s Institute in the English West Country. Even here, in the title of a sitcom, we can identify the features of segmentivity and indeterminacy. The Women’s Institute was started during the First World War as a means of increasing food production and revitalising rural communities, and a setting of Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ became the WI’s theme song. The poem includes some startling images – there’s a bow of burning gold, arrows of desire, and a ‘Chariot of fire’. (You probably recognise that last image as the title of a film about British runners in the 1924 Paris Olympics. They sing ‘Jerusalem’ in the film, too). The bow and the arrow and the chariot are things we can imagine, and think about. For William Blake, they referred to specific theological ideas, but when WI members sing the song, they can attach a range of idiosyncratic meanings to these mysterious objects. Here’s the last stanza of the poem,

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land. (par. 4)

When you hear the poem sung, the first lines sound like a bit of a mumble, but the last two lines are always loud and clear. The part of the poem that people know, enjoy and understand is the part about building a place together, so they can live somewhere really nice. That sounds very much like the mission of the WI – it’s as vague as wanting to ‘revitalise rural communities’ and as practical as ‘food production’ (‘About the WI’ par. 1). It’s also the theme of the sitcom Jam & Jerusalem, a group of women doing their flawed and comic best to make life better for themselves and for their village. People who sing Jerusalem probably have quite specific, detailed and conflicting ideas about how to go about the work of building, but the segmentivity of poetry means that they can associate their own ideas and associations with a handful of big images – a chariot, a sword, a green landscape – and its indeterminacy means that those images can shift and stretch to fit. So poetry can be a place to enjoy commonality. But at the same time, those qualities of segmentivity and indeterminacy mean that poetry can also be a place where we can disrupt a momentary sense of being in agreement. Here’s Blau DuPlessis describing working with various kinds of bricks, I mean, components,

As a poet, I work with language and its critique – words, their histories, the play of social materials and discourses, the twangs of nuance, neologisms, aphasias, syntax, and the notion of continuities by sequencing, the groundswell of letters and the falling apart of language; I work with poetic conventions and their critique – line break, metrics, rhyme and other marked sound, sonorities and overloads, genres and their uses, motivated allusions to the cadence and turbulence of past materials, all the rhetorical resources I can muster, wild or tame; I work with textual conventions and their critique – punctuation, capitalization, the look on the page, the page space itself, the notion of ‘poem’. (143)

Here is the third identifying feature, the one that goes with segmentivity and indeterminacy. Poetry messes with things. It takes things apart and puts them back together, it’s the same stuff, but it’s completely different. So when the poet and the reader get together in whatever ordinary kind of place they might go to sing or recite a few lines or think about what a tyger looks like and what the look of a tyger might mean, we can point out the features of poetry in what they come up with, in the segmentivity, the indeterminacy, and the messing.

We say the first line, about the tyger burning bright, and that segment of the poem stays in our thoughts until it’s joined there by the forest … hang on, it’s the forest of the night … that doesn’t really make sense … and then come the immortal hand and eye, the fearful symmetry … fearful symmetry … WTF … this poem is really messing with things. I used to think of symmetry as calming, but in this poem symmetry is perfection, perfection is God, and God is scary, I guess. Wait, I think I hear the confident shuffle of a person wearing new sandals; it might be William Blake, back from the shops. Oh dear, he’s been sitting on the bus reading this essay on his phone, and he has a couple of things he wants to discuss with me. He might be about to rearrange everything I thought I had settled. I better put the kettle on. Have a seat, William.

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