The Art of Violent Concision: Henri Cole

Written by

John Koethe
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Year

2009
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This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.

Photo by Brian Palmer

To appreciate what's so distinctive about Henri Cole's Blackbird and Wolf, this year's Lenore Marshall Award winner, it helps to have a sense of his development as a poet, for more than any other I can think of he has remade himself over the course of a career leading to this, his sixth book. His first two books, The Marble Queen and The Zoo Wheel of Knowledge, were mandarin performances, full of highly polished verse conspicuous for its sheer artfulness, exhibiting a delicacy and a mental and linguistic dexterity somewhat reminiscent of James Merrill. But starting with some of the poems in 1995's The Look of Things and continuing with the harshly direct poems in The Visible Man and the equally direct though somewhat mellower poems in Middle Earth, Cole developed a style and a sensibility, characterized by a relentless self-examination, almost diametrically opposed to those he began with, and which have reached full fruition in Blackbird and Wolf.

The poems in the book are as artful as those of anyone writing, but it's an artfulness so subtle and skillful that they seem almost artless in their directness and simplicity, as in these lines from "Gravity and Center":

I am sorry I cannot say I love you when you say
you love me. The words, like moist fingers,
appear before me full of promise but then run away
to a narrow black room that is always dark,
where they are silent, elegant, like antique gold,
devouring the thing I feel. . . .

The artfulness here reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Bishop in its invisibility (more so than, say, Robert Lowell, in whose work the effort too often shows), though certainly in style and subject matter Cole's work is nothing like Bishop's. Lucie Brock-Broido, one of the other Lenore Marshall Award judges, described his work in presenting the award to him as manifesting "the art of Violent Concision" in the way it magnifies its human subject matter and renders it with a surprising and startling clarity. The poem concludes with a kind of ars poetica:

I don't want words to sever me from reality.
I don't want to need them. I want nothing
to reveal feeling but feeling—as in freedom,
or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond,
or the sound of water poured into a bowl.

The delicacy of the last line and the straightforward but plaintive desire of the first in this excerpt serve to heighten the sense of inwardness that is Cole's true subject, in something like the way the late critic David Kalstone describes when he traces much of the power of Elizabeth Bishop's work to a "heightened receptiveness . . . to a scene which, in the event, so excludes" the poet, an exclusion which strengthens the sense of the poet's subjective consciousness as an implied presence, isolated in "a narrow black room that is always dark."

This artful artlessness is not an end in itself, impressive though it is, but works in the service of what I've just indicated I take to be Cole's true subject, the inward subjective self and its problematic relation to the objective external world of things and other people. One might call it confessional poetry, though that term seems increasingly quaint, and I prefer to think of it as autobiographical poetry which uses the raw materials of the poet's life to fuel an intense exploration of the kind of self-consciousness Gerard Manley Hopkins describes when he writes: "Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this self being of my own. Nothing explains it or resembles it, except so far as this, that other men to themselves have the same feeling. But this only multiplies the phenomena to be explained so far as they are like and do resemble. But to me there is no resemblance: searching nature I taste self at one tankard, that of my own being."

Poets and theorists of poetry have written a great deal of nonsense about the self, the result, it seems to me, of confusing the philosophical issue of the metaphysical status of the self with the aesthetic issue of the viability of first-person meditative forms, as though the latter were retrograde and somehow incompatible with a correct understanding of the former. But it's easy to see that the two are quite independent, for whatever the correct view is of the ontological status of the self (assuming there is one), it obviously accommodates the interior soliloquy of the first-person meditation that poets (and philosophers too—think of Descartes and Wittgenstein, for example) have been engaging in for centuries, whatever the referential status of the pronoun "I." It is no accident that Harold Bloom, for whom poetry and self-consciousness are inextricably linked, considers Cole the central poet of his generation, for I can think of no other poet who explores the vicissitudes of consciousness with such single-mindedness, as in these lines from "To Sleep":

So I put down my book
and pushed like a finger through sheer silk,
the autobiographical part of me, the am,
snatched up to a different place, where I was
no longer my body but something more—
the compulsive, disorderly parts of me
in a state of equalization, everything sliding off:
war, suicide, love, poverty—as the rebellious,
mortal I, I, I lay, like a beetle irrigating a rose,
my red thoughts in a red shade all I was.

What is so maddening and mysterious about individual consciousness is that it is utterly commonplace and ordinary and at the same time absolutely unique, as intimated by the passage from Hopkins quoted above, or these lines from "Beach Walk":

Later, I saw a boy,
aroused and elated, beckoning from a dune.
Like me, he was alone. Something tumbled between
     us—
not quite emotion. I could see the pink
interior flesh of his eyes. "I got lost. Where am I?"
He asked, like a debt owed to death.

Poetry that puts an emphasis, as Cole's does, on directness and the avoidance of comforting illusions and consolations inevitably raises questions about the relation between poetry and truth. Given the opacity of our own inner lives and the difficulty of knowing ourselves, the risk of adopting the guise of the truth-teller is that one is liable to lose sight of the fact that it is, in the end, a guise, though often a necessary one. But I think that worries about the truth of the poet's discoveries and revelations are misplaced: what matters, it seems to me, about the thoughts expressed in poetry is not whether they're literally true, but whether the poet entertains and inhabits them in a convincing manner, and whether the reader can enter into them along with him. Wittgenstein says in a related connection that "the importance of a true confession does not reside in its being a correct and certain report of a process. It resides rather in the special consequences which can be drawn from a confession whose truth is guaranteed by the special criteria of truthfulness." Wittgenstein's meaning is difficult and obscure. But I think it is in something like this sense that Henri Cole's Blackbird and Wolf contains some of the most truthful poems in modern American poetry.