The withdrawal of or refraining from punctuation, in other words, has enabled an opening or multiplication of meaning. Things are moving (webbing? blowing?) beneath grammar, stirring from it, as if the rules of normative usage not only enable things, but also prevent or hide things, strip them down to particular functions, deny them a wanderingness, a play, a tendency to lose focus and to become distracted from a central, effective purpose (as if, as Bruce Beaver might put it, menageries were being contained1). Even now, for example, we have not exhausted the options, given that ‘webbing’ might also be a noun, a gerund, and that we have said nothing about the absence of punctuation here – indeed it will be sparse throughout the poem – and the way, in its absence, semantic units are freer to form their own connections, make their own choices, or, better, not make them, leave us to deal with their doubleness.
It’s not unusual, when one begins to move – to read – so slowly, to stumble. There is not the momentum to carry us over the cracks (cracks that, arguably, are always there). What might have seemed a relatively smooth surface now seems to be full of fissures. ‘Help’, ironically, comes just in time, to give us – let us glimpse – a possible grid, or at least an angle of vision. There is trouble of some kind here, for which help might be required, although still there is doubleness: we don’t know whether the winds are bringing assistance, or carrying the voices that are calling for it.
If only slightly, ‘Sun’, in line four, continues our dislocations (or are they relocations?). That it is not ‘The Sun’, but ‘Sun’ only – capitalised, presumably, in order to mark the beginning of a new semantic unit, though in the process rendering this something like a proper noun, not only bringing something new – another thing – into the poem, but establishing a certain kind of relationship with it. It is not unusual to drop the definite article in a poem, from this very word (‘Sun set, moon not yet risen …’) but when it is done it is usually part of an extended local telegraphic mode in a poem or part of a poem that would see, as in the line just quoted, the auxiliary verb also omitted, whereas here it is precisely the fact that the auxiliary very (‘is’) has not been omitted that governs the tone and sense. Normative as the grammar here could be said to be, the agency is not. A certain perspective – a Western one? – sees sun and its light as inseparable, virtually synonymous. What does it do to present the sun as something – someone? – that (/ who) can do something with its light? As if there were volition, consciousness here. Animism? Very possibly. But let’s not jump to conclusions.
In its effect, the absence of the definite article before ‘Sun’ is subtle, but certainly not un- or a-grammatical. Not so the next line, ‘moon is darking its face’, where one would expect, and so ghost-read (negative suggestion), ‘darkening’. But the meaning, at least initially, is surely the same – so what, other than a further registration of resistance, is to be gained by withholding the syllable? Firstly – one of the defining characteristics of poetry, according to Viktor Shklovsky2 – defamiliarisation (ostranenie): that estrangement which prevents us taking something for granted and so passing over it quickly, insensitively, not seeing it for what it is. And secondly, of course, since the ‘-en-’ in ‘darkening’ would serve as a kind of comparative (to darken is to make dark, yes, but also to make darker), there is a matter of degree: the moon is not making its face darker, it is making it dark.3
‘Stars is fallen its flight’. What a strange and interesting line. ‘Stars’ disagrees, in number, with ‘is’. ‘Is’ disagrees, in tense, with ‘fallen’. ‘Fallen’, as past participle, cannot agree with ‘its’. And while ‘its’, as possessive, can be reconciled with ‘flight’, the unit this makes has no clear referent. It’s as if the line were in fact made up of five virtually – grammatically – discrete units:
stars is fallen its flight
One thinks, setting them out like that, of Pound’s discussion of the Chinese written character – specifically of his discussion of the line
月 耀 湖 純 雪 Moon Rays Lake Pure Snow4
– and, more specifically, of the point that Pound was trying to make about opening poetic form, in order to liberate it, to the extent that this might be possible, from the confining grips of Western discourse. There were many things wrong or naïve about Pound’s approach, but no-one has ever, to my thinking, quite adequately answered his haunting observation that the classic Western sentence (of subject, verb, object) – the core unit, arguably, of all Western thought, and floor (/ flaw) of its logic – is, in its insistence that, in order to be spoken, one thing must be doing something to another, fundamentally aggressive. His excitement about the Chinese written character is that it is comprised of radicals, and that – here his naïveté? but it is, truly, the thought that counts – there are no inherent instructions within the character as to how the radicals are to be related, just as in the Chinese poetic line there fewer inherent instructions – less grammar – to determine how the characters are to be put together to comprise a ‘message’. Their valencies, this is simply to say, are less constricted; ambiguities – and possibilities – open up in their relations. A long way from Pound, Fenollosa, and the Chinese character to some of the lines of Lionel Fogarty, perhaps. And perhaps not.
- See ‘Letter XII’ from Letters to Live Poets (1969): ‘So it’s one day at a time spent checking / the menagerie of self; seeing / the two-headed man has half as much / of twice of everything; curbing the tiger; / sunning the snake; taking stock of / Monkey, Piggsy, Sandy’s belt of skulls.’ ↩
- ‘The language of poetry is, then, a difficult, roughened, impeded language’ (etc.). See ‘Art as Technique’ (1917), a translation of which is available in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (1965). ↩
- Nor need one discount a bleak and ironic reference to Vaudevillian blackface here. Western / non-indigenous appropriations are indisputably part of the waning of the light. ↩
- Pound, Ezra and Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, first published in Pound’s Instigations (1920). ↩