Here We Go Round The Prickly Pear

by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau


I feel like I’m going round in circles thinking about Eliot’s formula for the ‘objective correlative’ as set out in my last post – ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’. This seems to imply that the emotion, not the objects, comes first in the creative impulse. But does it? And does the dogmatic-sounding nature of the statement render it impractical for the composition or criticism of poetry  – a mode to which the idea of formula is often anathema?

In some types of poetry, generally more mainstream than avant-garde, a natural setting is used to reinforce the poem’s dominant mood. As Charles Altieri points out in his description of the ‘scenic mode’, the point of this type of lyric is not so much ‘to interpret experience but to extend language to its limits in order to establish poignant awareness of what lies beyond words’ [1]. The description of the natural setting is directly conflated with both the speaking persona and its attempt to convey what is felt or experienced but cannot be expressed. This is a simple application of the idea of the objective correlative. Description of setting + human action within it / interaction with it = expression of complex emotion felt. A good brief exploration of this type of poem (and some insights into the complexities of defining poetries) can be found in Marjorie Perloff’s review of Hank Lazer’s book 3 of 10, where she discusses his poem ‘Point Sur’ from the earlier volume Doublespace.

hogarth_62Applied to Eliot’s own work, this theorem takes on aspects that both validate and problematise its use in poetry. I’d like to talk about ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’; how coffee spoons and bare-armed women are used as signifiers of the speaker’s discomfort or social anxiety, but I won’t, because it predates Eliot’s first mention of the objective correlative. On the other hand, although the idea of the objective correlative has often since been used in discussing poetry, Eliot does not write about it as an intellectual tool used in the creation of his own works.

The Waste Land’ (first published in 1922, two years later than The Sacred Wood) does not present a chain of events, as such, and its ‘situation’ encompasses a large geographic and chronological span, including much that is imaginary or mythological. The poem’s many voices range from the diffuse and undefined, such as the song of the three Thames daughters, to the redeployed quotes referenced in the extensive glossary, to the sharply defined and cutting sketch of modern London life in the scene with the sexual encounter between a typist and a house agent’s clerk:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

This scene (including the part that precedes it) has always been, for me, one of the most immediate pathways to understanding the uneasy personal relationship with post WWI urban life that Eliot charts over the course of ‘The Waste Land’. And yet it is explicitly announced within this section that the speaker of the poem here is neither Eliot, nor the typist herself, but rather Tiresias, a mythological figure, a blind male prophet of Thebes who was transformed into a woman for (at least) seven years:

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)

For Eliot here, finding the objective correlative and thus expressing the experienced emotion most effectively seems to involve effacing himself as much as possible from his own lyric poem, transforming his own voice into that of Tiresias, which encompasses both genders and finally reminds us of the one unshakable common human bond: our mortality.

Tiresias_striking_the_snakesIn ‘Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World’, poet Ron Silliman posits that ‘[t]he work of each poet, each poem, is a response to a determinate coordinate of language and history. Each writer possesses in his or her imagination a subjective conceptualization of this matrix (inevitably partial, inevitably a distortion), usually termed the tradition’. [2] The choice of the word ‘partial’ here bears a double meaning, that of ‘not whole’ and also that of ‘biased’.

The fact that Silliman flags the nature of the author’s concept of the matrix as problematic implies the inevitable interference wrought by the actions of the author as subject: if the poem is the response to a determinate coordinate of language and history, then the author can be seen as its product, shaped by the same forces. Thus although I find the term ‘matrix’ particularly useful, rather than seeing it as something in the author’s possession, we might, in a more Lacanian sense, think of the author as equally embedded within this set. In one of the best expressions of the need-to-write trope I have yet come across, Silliman continues: ‘[t]he locus of the work to be written is felt as a blind spot, a primal lack toward which the writer is driven. Each successful poem abolishes (but only for a time) the lack and subtly reorganizes the structure of the subjective matrix’ [2].

This works so well for me because the idea of a blind spot opens up the idea of many possibilities for what the lack consists of, a lack unique to each author. It might be political, or form-driven. It might be emotional, or it might reside at the level of language itself. I write poetry for very personal reasons – not in the sense that all my poetry deals with my innermost feelings, but in the sense that I write it generally for myself.

Again, this needs to be qualified – I think that every poet writes for herself, but to return to the idea of the blind spot for a moment, some poets’ concerns are more overtly public by nature than others: poetries of gender, the environment, cultural diversity, and politics generally tend to involve and be addressed to a public audience as they often assume an otherwise unspoken voice. On the other hand, for me, writing for myself can be something more like the process of solving a crossword puzzle. It might be creating a set of events or a situation, or at another level, a set of sounds or graphemes that don’t so much attempt to describe an emotion as to explore it for myself. Sometimes, once the objective correlative coalesces out of a rough draft, I may lose the need to finish the poem. Others, I redraft scrupulously – a kind of zone happens where I will cut from one side and add to the other until the outward expression of the poetic impulse is as close to perfectly balanced with the emotion / situation that sparked it as I can make it. In the next post, I discuss not writing a poem in Croajingalong National Park, and the continual readjustment of what, exactly, constitutes the poetic moment.

And today’s question: In an Annual Progress Review of my PhD several years ago, one of my readers remarked that my poetry was ‘accomplished, yet [pronoun] could not escape the sense that this was thought poetry rather than felt poetry’. Leaving aside the idea of privileging one conceptual framework over another, how could any poetry worth its salt not be both?

TSE draft

[1] Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[2] Ron Silliman, ‘Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World’ in The New Sentence. UNSW pbk ed. New York: Roof, 1989. Print.

5 thoughts on “Here We Go Round The Prickly Pear

  1. I think Eliot’s decision to avoid the objective correlative in terms of intellectual, conscious process was a wise one. I feel that many things we attribute to the creation of a poem can most easily be defined after the event. Naming and breaking down that which sets slow fire to the best of our work can be folly. Ultimately, Eliot had the sense to trust in the ineffable.

  2. I have often thought this too, Anthony. For an experiment, in the next post, I’m going to document the process as it happens, in a poem I didn’t write, but was bouncing around in my head for a few days. Thanks for commenting!

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