Personal History of a Troublesome Phrase

For a long time I was troubled (troubled as in the sense of a persistent itch) by a phrase that appeared on the jacket cover of the 1989 Farrar Straus Giroux edition of John Berryman’s Collected Poems. The jacket reads:

John Berryman’s poetry, to quote from one of his poems, “not only expresses the matter at hand / but adds to the stock of available reality.”

I found myself using the metaphor—“stock of available reality”—in a poem that struggled to be born. Because it’s a favorite poem, I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) for several years to have it published. The point is, it became clear to me in the struggle to bring the poem into being that much of the effort involved my struggle with this phrase. It is that struggle and its resolution that I want to write about today. With luck and persistence I hope to publish the poem and at that time reveal a fuller context.

First of all, “adding to the stock of available reality” is an unsatisfactory phrase. And it’s impossible to ask a dead man what he meant by it. My poem had touched on dissatisfaction with a poetry that simply adds another object to the world. Certainly the phrase can be used to argue against this type of poetry. Surely Berryman meant more than addition. He probably meant that, thanks to the poetry, you have more to work with to navigate your way through reality. One is reminded of Barthelme’s use of the word “object”, that a story or a poem is another object in the world, like a refrigerator. Besides, with ingenuity one can take any phrase and fill it with any meaning. But I had found, in my effort to birth this poem, that all my efforts to treat language as a theme brought me into contact with metaphysics, when what I was trying to do was labor in what I thought was a specific field of language. My apologies for being vague, which is an inevitable consequence of not sharing the poem itself. Suffice to say I was exhausted by these efforts.

I felt that every step I made to understand pushed the enigma one step further from my understanding, indeed that as I pushed the poem further along, and pushed all of my poems together (I was at that time as I am this year writing a poem every day) further away from me and into a reader’s hands, I was stuck holding all the detritus, all the words that couldn’t fit. It was like completing a piece of furniture. The closer one gets to the lovely object that will be placed carefully in someone’s home, the more cluttered and chaotic the workshop becomes. When the goal is accomplished, what does one have? The object is gone and one is left with chaos and detritus, all of the bits and pieces that weren’t incorporated into it. “Free me from the too-long speech,” writes Blanchot at the end of one hundred and forty of the thickest pages ever written (The Step Not Beyond). The more one tries to get at the essential simplicity, often silent, the more laboriously verbose one becomes. The time had come to untangle that net of language.

First off, the phrase is not Berryman’s. It belongs to R. P. Blackmur whom Berryman quotes in his poem Olympus from a book review in Poetry magazine. The poem is all about coming across this essay and how impressed by it he was. For a while it made him want to be a critic: “Ah, how deeper & more scientific”. This is really all the poem says except the sudden mention at the end of a girl, one Jean Bennett. Here, with Berryman’s lineation, is the entire slice of the essay that he chose for Olympus, impressing him in his “serpentine researches,” with its “sublime assurance”:

The art of poetry
is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse
by the animating presence in the poetry
of a fresh idiom: language

so twisted & posed in a form
that it not only expresses the matter in hand
but adds to the stock of available reality.

Berryman tells us he was never the same after reading that, that for a while he went about, so impressed by the critic’s “comprehensive air of majesty,” that he even “re-deploy[ed] all of Blackmur’s key terms & even his sentence structure wherever I could.”

Before I comment on this, here’s what Berryman’s introducer, Charles Thornbury, says about it:

The Song of the Tortured Girl illustrates [Blackmur phrase]. The repeated line [“minutes I lay awake to hear my joy”] not only expresses the matter in hand (her present suffering) but also adds to the stock of her, and our, available reality (her past experience and her present memory of joy). [xlvii]

Granted, for Thornbury, that which is added is not just another poem to the world. It is an experience, through words, that adds something (call it what you will, qualify it as you will) to the matter, pure and simple, of reality. For whatever reason Blackmur’s phrase was handy enough to be quoted again on the dust jacket of The Collected Poems of John Berryman. Thus I owed its dogged presence in my mind not to Berryman (I did not and do not find Olympus a remarkable poem) nor to Blackmur (I am not impressed by the phrase in itself) but to Thornbury and to Farrar Straus and Giroux of New York.

And, of course, to my own limitations. Having read Thornbury’s introduction but once—and that ten years before writing the poem in question—I had simply forgotten that the phrase was not Berryman’s. But seeing the dust jacket whenever I picked up the book, the phrase caught my eye repeatedly and as it appears there it does seem to be Berryman’s own. Not being attracted to the Love and Fame poems, the collection in which Olympus appeared and which which I had read even longer ago, I was unaware of the proper context.

Now I can lay it all to rest. I will take it for granted, as Thornbury says, that it was one of Berryman’s favorite definitions. But based on my reading of the poetry I have something more to add, however minuscule, to the available reality of this alcove of Berryman studies.

One of the things that is deeply satisfying about reading a great poet’s work is that every word, every placement of every word, and every detail of punctuation is considered with a precision comparable to that of a great composer of music. There are no mistakes. If a question remains, it is left to resonate at the discretion of the composer. This does not by any means make a definitive analysis a logical result but it does mean that a reader cannot assume that any word the poet chose might just as well have been a different word. In the present context I could have said that better. We grant more leeway to most kinds of writers. It’s not particularly difficult to admit something could have been worded differently. The important thing is the matter to be conveyed. But poetry is different. To say a poet chose the wrong word is to say a composer chose the wrong note. It doesn’t happen. There are no wrong notes. There are good and bad compositions, and this can be analyzed, but there are no right or wrong compositions. The poet’s vocation is to choose each word, and each placement, with precision. If another poet thinks he can bring something more to what is presented, he writes his own poem, he doesn’t correct the other poem.

Berryman wrote verse, but twisted and posed in a form all his own. One must bear in mind the entire Blackmur quote. Berryman must have thought that this expressed pretty well his desire to create a fresh idiom, all his own. He may have simply enjoyed the way Blackmur wrote. It may also be however that at the time he read the essay he wasn’t mature enough to do what Blackmur advocated. Either way, we do know what the poem Olympus tells us, and one can’t miss the humorous contrast between Blackmur’s words and Berryman’s love of those words on the one hand, and on the other hand Berryman’s stated response of imitating the key terms and sentence structure of those words. The point of Olympus would seem to be Berryman making fun of his earlier self in doing the exact opposite of what he claimed to admire in Blackmur, the great man, so majestic, almost God-like, and so scientific! We can laugh at the way Berryman, resting on his fame for a moment, can demonstrate what Blackmur means, by showing the difference between manufacturing words and writing one’s own. The point of Olympus is more to have a laugh than to put forward, for its own sake, Blackmur’s definition of the art of poetry.

We can take for granted that Berryman liked the definition, but his placing Blackmur onto Olympus is done less to exalt that definition than it is to point out the folly that you fail to understand your mentors, much less achieve their status, when you merely imitate them. Knowing who Berryman was (he trades on his fame in the collection in which Olympus appears; it is the trope that animates the poems), we know that he accomplished Blackmur’s ideal, but his accomplishment is first and foremost in the former part of it (the “fresh idiom,” the “twisting” into a new form). The latter part—“adding to the stock of available reality”—is really just the consequence of doing the first part, and it’s a rather bland truism to say so (even if saying so has a scientific ring to it, pleasing to some ears). One can just grant that, yes, there is a value to doing poetry beyond manufacturing more poetic objects to fill up space. Really, doesn’t it sound just a bit silly? Like saying that eating ice cream ‘stimulates the sensory glands associated with taste’, or that great sex ‘subtracts from the fundamental isolation of the individual human condition.’ Taken out of the context of Olympus, the Blackmur quote doesn’t sound right, especially if you are under the mistaken impression (as I was for many years!) that the words are Berryman’s.

Thus, in my struggle with the poem I was struggling with a false problem. Oy.

Finally, it’s amusing to consider John Barrow, champion of science, who said in The Artful Universe*: “It’s not enough to collect examples of diversity”, expressing his dissatisfaction with subjectivity or self-expression as a pure value. But a theoretical art which does the opposite, which follows scientific formulas, “recipes” for genetically programmed success, in short a scientifically “informed” art, does nothing but add objects to the world, which is already full of objects and has no need of more. Both are unsatisfactory. Both are bad art, if they are art at all. But science will be hard put to quantify that which good art adds to the human world. It’s something that is bigger than any one individual, and at the same time it’s something that allows that individual to glimpse the universe. If one were to give this thing a word, one could do worse than to call to mind Borges’ aleph, but unless science finds an actual aleph, I think it’s likely, considering the way science proceeds, that it will botch the job of art studies.


* John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe, Little, Brown and Company, 1995, p 245



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14 Responses to Personal History of a Troublesome Phrase

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    The first thing that came to mind on reading the troublesome phrase were the lines from Wallace Stevens’ Ordinary Evening in New Haven: “The poem is the cry of its occasion,/Part of the res itself and not about it.” Among other things, however, those lines don’t, so far as I can tell, contain any trace of humor. The more I ponder the troublesome phrase (which I found seductively quotable at first), the more its meaning, whatever may have been intended, seems to evaporate. What does “stock” mean (and what does it connote) in this context? What does “reality” mean as used here?

    Your words struck me most, and particularly these: “One of the things that is deeply satisfying about reading a great poet’s work is that every word, every placement of every word, and every detail of punctuation is considered with a precision comparable to that of a great composer of music. There are no mistakes.” And this: “If another poet thinks he can bring something more to what is presented, he writes his own poem, he doesn’t correct the other poem.” Going back, then, to the troublesome phrase, I might say instead that a great poem offers us something essential that didn’t exist before its creation. But that’s not nearly so felicitous a phrase, I’ll admit–and it may well fall apart on examination, too.

    • The Stevens quote goes to what Barthelme was getting at–the modern concept of the art object, that it’s not representative of something else, but the thing itself.

      Perhaps Berryman was even poking fun at Blackmur for using phrases that sound so meaningful but disintegrate upon inspection. “Stock of available reality” here suggests that you have an inventory of poems in a warehouse that are available to you, but the suggestion that there’s an unavailable reality is troublesome. Is Reality, according to this line of thinking, chaos, and our poem-making the ordering of it, the making of that chaos available for use? Some might argue that’s what humans do, but I can’t follow that discourse very far until I need some air and some real food.

  2. Brendan says:

    Thanks Mark, great essay — with ten million of us monkey clattering away on our keyboards, its not surprising that surprising statements about the reach of art — that it not only creates objects, but invokes or translates or blesses a new creation. The dimensional magnitude of “not only expresses the matter at hand / but adds to the stock of available reality” priviledges art for something akin to divinity. Emerson: “talent juggles and frolics; genius realizes and adds.” Rilke: “Young man, learn to forget that passionate singing. / It will end. True singing is a different breath. / A gust inside the god. A wind.” (Mitchell translation) Stevens’ “complicate amassing harmony.” What Eliot was excavating when he said that poetry communicates before it is understood. It’s all there in the bowels of Lascaux where we are suddenly, with the lifting of a torch, confronted with teeming pleroma of life-in-death. Making objects is the specific action, but soul-making is the vocation inside of the work, and those who show great art in doing so become our mentors, the spirit-level of mastery by which we fumble and scrape and sweat in our workshops. And that greater reality which comes into existence doesn’t sum in any way sensible enough to science, nor can unlock the secrets of nature (that is not art’s job) but rather, as Rilke said elsewhere, to “sing” reality. Maybe it’s just more elegant programming. Great post, Mark.

    • I think I’m more of a juggler than a realizer. It may be that we are just programmed to sing this way, and science may one day prove that. Will the proof destroy the value or even the urge to sing? It seems doubtful. That a new way of singing will emerge seems more likely.

      • Brendan says:

        At least you have the humility to call what we do juggling. I don’t think Emerson or Stevens or Berryman or Jack Gilbert were realizers for more than inch of the inundation of their lives. Science is ever stripping away the mystery, we may eventually learn that all poetry is just sing-song that sometimes successfully, most times not masturbates the inner ear’s phantom king. Poetry seems to improve the less we know.

  3. hedgewitch says:

    Your comparison of building a tangible object composed of informed labor, function and craft, and building a poem is nothing if not apposite, Mark. One so wants to use every scrap, and often one can, but seldom on purpose, only when the thing at hand calls unerringly for that bit, and your brain goes, ‘wait, I have that somewhere…’. You know looking at the post-creation mess of left-overs that despite appearances, it just isn’t junk–or is it? That’s where I suppose the metaphysics of it all begins, either glue or crowbar. Best of luck at hammering it all out, and publishing the final addition to our stock of functional reality.

    • I knew a painter once who liked the word “use”, which he applied to all aspects of artistic activity. I didn’t like it much because it seemed to preclude the possibilities of participation that I see in the art process: the artist participates in a process much bigger than himself and leaves an artwork that invites participation from the viewer/reader. The word “use” here suggested to me a God-like master of the universe incorporating everything into his own design. To my mind “use” is a workshop term, the way your “functional reality” seems to dial the focus down. Yet, as you point out, the question of beginnings always reappears!

      In the poem I refer to the words that could not be used as rocks thrown from the field of labor. Yet they kept calling to me in their silence, always promising to speak, at some point.

  4. angela says:

    Oy! Now this causes many problems – one, one wishes they could read your poem/ two, what of those of us who only are capable of producing objects(should they stop?) / three, does this somehow give validity to the KG faction (a glimmer of his argument here, though, I do not think you are saying that one need not still strive toward an original creation of one’s own words).
    Your words do cause me to pause and think twice now about posting my streams of thought (aka poetry) for I do agree about the poet/composer analogy. That said, when does one know that what they have is beyond object – is it in the eye the creator or the editor…

    • one) The web is flooded with my poems.

      two) You may have seen the Vonnegut quote in social media:

      “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

      That’s coming from one of the finest prose stylists in the English language! Yet I agree with it wholeheartedly.

      three) I don’t give any credence whatsoever to KG’s uncreative anti-aesthetics. I’m not putting words in his mouth, but if he didn’t believe it was desirable to add art objects to the world then why has he produced massive tomes (that he calls poems) that aren’t even intended to be read? Poem as doorstop, that’s the ultimate poem-as-object.

      four) Your comments cause me to pause and rethink what I’ve written. I’m guilty of Blackmurisms here! If I had been writing about Ashbery instead of Berryman, I never would have used the composer analogy, because I don’t think of him in those terms. But the larger point holds true for any of my favorite poets (they are attentive to what they are writing), and the best way for me to respond to a poem is with another poem.

      I can only respond to your last question by talking about myself and I can only say that I don’t know for sure if any of the poems I have published or shared are worth reading. Only readers can tell me that. But I do hope they are, and I want them to be. There are so many platitudes about writing, from “write what you know” to “write because you have to” or whatever. I don’t buy into the notion that writers have to disregard the reader in order to be genuine. I don’t believe in writing without a reader. But every writer’s relationship to the process and the world at large is unique, and we each have to hammer it out in our own way.

      • angela says:

        Thanks for the great reply, Mark. On Vonnegut – I think I need to write that one out on a big sheet of paper to remind me to just write and not judge! I do hope that you understand that the last point was more a way for me to say, “hey, perhaps your poem IS finished and it is the editor that has it wrong…” Your writing, esp. when it is ‘on’ very much works for the reader and we thank you. As for the composer…I think I get it on both levels – you were not demanding for beauty per se but for precision (which forms great music) something that comes with rewrites, or at least a long hard reread with an eraser. When I think of Ashbery, I think of precision even when he seems to be looping us along. Your thinking posts always inspire me to push myself to read more poetry and think more…thank you.

  5. ManicDdaily says:

    Hi Mark, I do not have a philosophical bend. I have a hard time seeing the poem or the phrase as an object. I admit that the word “stock” is an odd one but I perhaps am too simple about it– I feel like the phrase has to do with explicating the poet’s object (object in this case, subject) and in doing that pushing open wider (or the envelope) as to how we see the world. And stock perhaps as issued stock if you will– adding to its value- though I think the other meaning is more powerful in terms of adding to our perception of what is there and real and possible. I can see why you would like the phrase or be captivated by it and also to get caught up in the self-referential aspects of poets and critics. I once took several classes with Harold Bloom who I think really focused on this type of referentiality. I also appreciate the authority we give to a good poet or one we like– that we don’t understand the words rather than that they’ve got them wrong– or if egotistical enoigh we do it again out own way or our referential way. At any rate I am mucking your thoughts and my response up on a phone here– I am not at home– I am interested to see your process here. It is rather strange to me as I am very experiential. And though I certainly read poetry, well , do not Think about it so deeply– my goal if I had one to memorize more poems, to make the language and cadence part of my own stock as it were but dont do that enough. Thanks. K.

  6. Pingback: Outcasts (Constructing a Poem) | The Mockingbird Sings

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