University of Canberra
Owen Bullock and Niloofar Fanaiyan
Warp and weft: Aesthetics of the poem as an artefact of experiences in time
When the artist is forced to enter the immediate present,
The aesthetic experience of reading a poem is mediated by perceptions of time. ‘What is time?’ Augustine asks. ‘Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?’ (Augustine 1998 Confessions XI.14.17). Far from the language of conversation, the poem has the capacity to represent moments and transitions in time, creating a time experience for the reader or listener. Just as our perspective on past and/or future events may change, the poem can accompany us through those changes, as well as seeming to halt or distort time, and thereby highlighting its various aspects.
In order to facilitate an engagement with the concept of time as central to the experience of poetry as artefact we will begin this paper by presenting a discussion of Augustine’s theory and approach, a delineation of psychological time versus cosmological time, and a brief exploration of some general aspects and attributes of time. Consequently we will apply that discussion to the poetry of Alistair Paterson, a poet whose work demonstrates a particular preoccupation with the interplay of time and contemporaneity. Finally, we will present two of our own poems that revolve around time as a concept, particularly the various iterations of time, which will enable us to discuss Augustine’s theory from the perspective of composers and performers, thereby directly engaging with, and experiencing, the various aspects and attributes of time through the poem as artefact.
A question of Time
In this paper we define cosmological time as the time of existence – as that greater time that happens beyond our control. This includes all movements in the universe, development, regression, ageing, etc. Cosmological time has no beginning or ending; it can repeat itself; it can exist in loops; it can be approached from any direction; it can embody simultaneity. Cosmological time is different from psychological time which arises from an awareness of, or ‘consciousness of intervals of time’ (Augustine Confessions XI.16.21). Psychological time is linear and sequential and exists as a representation imposed by the mind. Augustine, in his Confessions, suggests that time is something the mind can perceive and measure (XI.21.27), and this is the ‘time’ that is referred to as psychological time in this paper. He proposes that it is only ‘at the moment when time is passing’ that ‘it can be perceived and measured’ (XI.16.21). In regards to the mechanics of perceiving and measuring time, Augustine elaborates:
Augustine further elaborates that when one remembers and/or recounts the past, it is the image of the past that is being looked upon by the mind in the present (XI.18.23). Similarly, seeing the predawn sky in the present allows you to predict the sunrise, which has not yet happened, as a mental image (XI.18.24). Augustine ultimately understands time as a trinity: a present of the past, a present of the present, and a present of the future (XI.20.26). He explains that ‘the present considering the past is memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expectation’ (XI.20.26). These three versions of the present are separated into two categories based on the passage of time. The present of the present becomes the focal point, or the point of attention, whereas both the present of the past and the present of the future are ‘distensions’ of the mind (XI.26.33).
We will consider these three modalities in due course, but let us begin with the problem of measurement. The sequential is what we do to time, how we attempt to regulate our understanding of it, and to measure time. It has been noted, however, that time ‘eludes mathematical treatment. Its essence being to flow, not one of its parts is still there when another part comes along’ (Bergson 1992: 12). Derrida would seem to agree that time is beyond us in this sense: ‘In a certain way, it is always too late to ask the question of time. The latter has already appeared’ (Derrida 1982: 42). Bergson posits that the measurement of time is that of an immobile line, rather than its flow, which means that its nature, mobility, is not measured, but instead it is the limitations of intervals that are measured, since time is mobility (Bergson 1992: 12-14). While Augustine refutes the idea that mobility equals time (Confessions XI.23.29) his three modalities of time allow us to approach the issue of measurement through a more figurative than physical understanding, which is closer to reflection.
Perhaps the present, or the now, is simply the space in which we experience everything (and the only space in which we experience anything). Augustine concludes that it is ‘the impression which passing events make upon you [the mind]’ that ‘abides when they are gone’ (XI.27.36), alluding to his own assertion that past and future do not exist (XI.20.26). Augustine’s point about the primacy of the immediate has parallels in the teachings of, for example, Ramana Maharshi, who writes that ‘past and future have never been without the present’ (Rajeswarananda 2010: 3). Similarly, Deleuze’s theory of time acknowledges that ‘only the present exists’, for, though past and future may be dimensions of the present, time is made only in the present (Williams 2011: 45).
Bergson contends that the historical origins of the present could only be understood in full if the past was known by its contemporaries with the knowledge of an indeterminate future (Bergson 1992: 25). Although the present cannot be elucidated in this way, Bergson suggests that if the abstract conception of time could be removed from our experience, we might contemplate new wonders in the universe, seeing it ‘ceaselessly taking on forms as new, as original, as unforeseeable as our states of consciousness’ (Bergson 1992: 21). Literature is well-placed to approach this kind of timelessness, even accepting the limitations of the metaphor. The past is contained within the dream, available to the present, as literature seeks to study the individual ‘in the concrete’ (Bergson 1992: 27). This is achieved powerfully by the artist through the suggestion of feelings, rather than the expression of them, in a state of response which is similar to the dream state and evokes the individual’s own history (Bergson 1959: 15-17). The cumulative effect in the relationship between artist and reader is to break down, ‘the barrier interposed by time and space between his consciousness and ours’ (Bergson 1959: 18). In discussing the ‘relativity of consciousness’, Bergson speculates that our view of time may be a necessary habit, but one which has no absolute existence that we can point to (Bergson 1992: 28-29); this is psychological time.
Linear time, which can be thought of as synonymous with psychological time, is a conception brought about by the human mind and its need to adjust to, understand and talk about time. To reiterate, this can be seen as opposing cosmological time which stands outside our experience, or at least outside our ability to comment on in language. Paradoxically, then, it is psychological time, the time that is imposed rather than the time that simply is, or cosmological time, which we attempt to measure.
We might say, following Augustine’s assertions, that ‘the present considering the present’ as ‘immediate awareness’ is closest to cosmological time of the three states, since those positioned either side of ‘the present of the present’ suggest our (synthetic) linearity. One should also consider whether past present and future do exist as one, and whether they exist at the same time as some cultures believe (such as The First at Sitting People of South Africa, see below). Augustine’s perception of the present considering each of the modalities seems to allow for a link between them that indicates contemporaneity. Perhaps this belief in contemporaneity is itself one of those ‘necessary habits’. If so, it would seem to have a more religious or spiritual function, perhaps to co-ordinate one’s responses to death. Nevertheless, possible manifestations of contemporaneity are also alluded to by the anti-linearity of cosmological time. We argue that the present of the present cancels out both forms of distension (memory and expectation) and that the point of attention can be seen as becoming aware of cosmological time, the time that simply is. This experience is similar to what occurs during meditation, or as Ricoeur describes it ‘a transition witnessed by meditative reflection’ (Ricoeur 2004: 101).
It has been suggested that the cognitive faculties engaged for meditation are also necessary for creativity. For example, Nin, speaking as a practitioner, indicates the potential universality of the poetic artefact: ‘When the artist is forced to enter the immediate present, he loses his own peculiar perspective which enables him to connect and relate past, present and future’ (Nin 1974a: 55). A poem, then, may disrupt the internal perception of linearity, and achieve a kind of universality, or universal present moment; ‘the present considering the present’ of Augustine, or the fusion of consciousness between text and reader of Bergson.
Prose, too, has the capacity to represent moments and transitions in time and to create a time experience for the reader or listener. But it relates to time somewhat differently. Essentially, the novel uses more time, partly to develop narrative. While the door of the novel can certainly shut, it is ‘not so fast, nor with such manic, unanswerable finality’ as in a poem (Plath 1977: 64), whose structures may disrupt, manipulate and depart from narrative at the whim of its aesthetic. Arguably, a greater degree of suspension of time is also possible in the poem. If linear time is really the clearer example of psychological time then the poem is closer to the cosmological and may be said to re-create or, in the loosest way possible, to represent it. In this light it is pertinent to examine an example of poetry which has the capacity to demonstrate both suspension and movement. In the next section we will conduct a close reading of a poem by an established poet and we will attempt to extrapolate the principles identified in the discussion thus far through experiencing the poem as artefact.
An example of representations of time in poetry
New Zealand poet Alistair Paterson has demonstrated a consistent preoccupation with time and contemporaneity in his work. This preoccupation has been especially evident in his book-length poems, The Toledo Room (1978), Qu’appelle (1982) and Africa // Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter (2008) . It has been noted that the long poem generally invokes history as its discursive horizon’ (Silliman 2011) . Qu’appelle asserts the primacy of the moment from its first page, and Paterson makes a similarly early reference to the moment in a recent interview, as well as stressing the Aristotelian idea that one is always in a state of becoming (Paterson 2014: 2).
Paterson’s Africa// Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter takes its main theme from the First at Sitting People’s belief that events in time are contemporaneous. This enables the poet to move freely between depictions of this South African tribe’s life, and events in Europe, the Americas and his native New Zealand across huge timespans. The strategy accommodates literary references, which often fold into portraits of the literary figures whom the text ‘visits’ (an approach also found in Qu’appelle).
After an introductory stanza which evokes a dreaming story that embraces all creatures as dreamers, the text introduces Kabbo, an African tribesman. He has dreamed himself into being, and is also embarked on a journey with his ancestors. The voice of the text asserts that our ancestors are living, and offers the paradoxical reflection that what has past also seems never to have happened; this includes memories and how they affect the perception of meaning within a culture. The tribesmen, as ‘The Earliest People’, are described alongside their cave paintings and how they represent animals and themselves; the spirits of the departed are now alive in rivers (Paterson 2008: 9-10) . The text then cuts to a journey by train through Auckland suburbs. The ellipsis used before this change suggests a continuation of time, rather than a major departure, as the African tribesman’s sense of the continuous presence of the past may be transposed to the contemporary westerner. The content of this Auckland section reiterates the idea of a journey, and it becomes evident that the idea of the future dwelling place of African spirits could include any time and locale, establishing contemporaneity as a theme (10-11).
The challenge of representing contemporaneity is met in part by use of the present tense in historical flashbacks, but also by transitions between sections which are paradigmatic in nature. They operate via associations of meaning within the text, which respond to the philosophical and spiritual beliefs of the /Xam-Ka !ei branch of the San people (known also as the ‘First at Sitting People’) described in Neil Bennun’s book, The Broken String. These strategies reflect Paterson’s comment in the Foreword about the beliefs of the /Xam-Ka !ei:
In turn, the author weaves together ‘disjointed everyday events’ to create an impression of unity across time and place. Of course, the use of different tenses impacts distension, and the use of tense in a poem is an important vehicle in achieving a particular ‘present’. The ‘time of a poem’, in terms of the mechanics of its structure, which include syntax, meter and lineation, can be seen as a variation of Augustine’s psychological time. The reading of a poem, by bringing all three variations of the ‘present’ to the fore, disrupts the sense of order and linearity, and makes us aware of cosmological time. The poem comments on uncertainties concerning different African tribal theories. But very soon these ideas become like memories forgotten and the voice switches to something else, mimicking the disjunctive nature of thinking, reinforcing the author’s use and acceptance of free association and again echoing the beliefs of the First at Sitting People with regard to parallel time frames and the fragmentary nature of events (12). The now frequent use of the second person in the poem involves the reader in these processes more fully, demonstrating ‘how concerned Paterson is to emphasise the continuity of human experience’ (Ross 2008: 101).
Evocations of Africa glissade to reflections on readings about place and origin stories, such as the elders agreeing they should throw the sun up into the sky for it to warm the earth. The text now seems to connect these stories with the creative process, as the voice imagines the tribesman Kabbo pondering his group’s history (Paterson 2008: 14-15). The text merges the two worlds by leaping from Kabbo imagining something in the thicket behind him to the voice of the poem aged twelve on tidal flats watching gulls overhead (17). These juxtapositions of imagined past and actual past events have the effect of lessening perceived differences between them, and in the space of the poem the difference is absolved. Ultimately, the overlapping images of the two ‘pasts’ minimise the reader’s sense of distension.
The ‘disjointed everyday events’ that the text narrates tug us away from logical continuity as the voice’s train of thought moves from bodies in the east river, to a nearby gallery, to thoughts of Goya, Venice, London and historical literary characters. We return to Auckland, with a piece of hardboard as a link, and thoughts of what might be painted on it. The writing hardly stands still long enough for meaning to be judged. Ross points out that ‘the disparate pieces of Paterson’s mosaic lack resolution and completeness’, but that that is the point being made, with regard to the mass of ‘necessary relationships’ in modern life (Ross 2008: 106-107). Trussell suggests Africa hints that the ‘necessary glue’ which holds our disparate experiences together is ‘a kind of dreaming’, founded on ‘archetypal human experience’ (Trussell 2011: 31). In just such an example, the text compares tourists around the world and notes in their desire to talk with fellow travellers a:
It is the evocation of these ‘archetypal human experiences’, such as the need for belonging, that might heighten the perception of immediate needs and therefore the present. Though the tone of this stanza, together with the ongoing intratextuality, recalls the First at Sitting People (and reflects on universality), further comparison is made with the Romans building walls around Colchester (in the present tense), because they feel alone and threatened; again, a distension into the past. It is also no surprise when the text takes in a letter from Jose Rodriguez Feo to Wallace Stevens a couple of stanzas later to the effect that someone should write about the effect of climate on the imagination (19). The discussion breaks off with a sudden gesture because the ferry is running late across the Auckland harbour. This alerts the reader to ‘real’ time, but the text then moves back to the era of Gautama, the Buddha and his relationship with his father (19-20). The text conflates experiences, while maintaining a relentless energy in its changes of settings and points of view. These are the movements of dramatis personae, often historical and from a variety of eras, evoking the contemporaneity of time.
The leaping and shifting sense of the present is enhanced by the story of a Quagga woman who feeds pieces of her own liver to her children (and also loses a piece to the he-Dog’s family), which leads into the oak tree next door (in Auckland) springing into leaf (26-27). Ideology does not escape reference either, as the juxtaposing strophes of the poem venture into political criticism with reference to American foreign policy having the best of intentions (stated more or less without irony), followed by a stanza which discusses the ways in which we tell lies, ‘for the commonest of reasons’ (Paterson 2008: 29). The effect of this juxtaposition has more power than overt criticism, as the reader is free to make a comparison.
One thing reminds the voice of the poem of another thing; this is an intrinsic aspect of Africa’s structure. For example, waiting in the Gard Du Nord for a telephone call that does not come is a trigger to recollecting a visit to Government House in Auckland and remembering the Wairau massacre (30-31). Use of the word ‘remembering’ is subtly potent, since it begins to suggest that the poet was present at the event – an impossibility – again having the important effect of fusing time. The distension helps make the reader aware of the present, but there is also a sense in which the present tries to re-occupy the past through this impossibility. In writing terms, this is an example of giving back to the past ‘its own present moments’ (Dening 2001: 34).
Recollections assert Africa as a place of beginning (an idea also mentioned in Qu’appelle), and moves on to talk about the novice dancing with the shaman. There is a sense here of Paterson as the novice and Kabbo as the shaman: the former learns of the ways of the San people (that time and place are contemporaneous), and Kabbo, in repeatedly intruding himself into the poet’s imagination, helps lead him through examples of this interconnectedness. It is as if the character of Kabbo is helping to determine the structure of the work, and his presence encourages multi-voicing and helps secure further examples of contemporaneity. The shaman is described as fearful of the potency he inhabits, that using this power wrongly might harm the people he means to serve (Paterson 2008: 30-31). Later, apprentice and shaman enter a cave to make paintings together (44). The western word ‘apprentice’ points up the contrast of roles with the tribal ‘shaman’, but also works to fuse cultural referents through their similarity.
The reader becomes less and less aware of the technique of fusing time and cultures as the poem progresses, ‘convinced’ by its attitude, perhaps achieving that blurring of lines between text and reader that Bergson hoped for. Towards the end of the poem, various connections are repeated, as repetition links memory and expectation, and the work builds into a crescendo. There is a final flurry of random images and inclusive ideas cross the page, before a kind of symphonic pause, in reference to an explorer in the Pacific. This sequence includes a mihi (welcome) from the tangata whenua (people of the land) of Aotearoa New Zealand. Something unnamed is anticipated or expected, which is pondered in the garden, where the eland (an antelope) seems to be present. The voice of the poem notes things we rarely mention, and a break caused by repetition disrupts the link with memory (Paterson 2008: 71-74). This is the world of the poem, which has used invention to forge a new frame for imagining the origins and state of the world; it is the breaking of the link between the two types of distension that forces the reader to ‘attend’ to the present of the present.
The present of the future
While Paterson’s poem largely reflects on the present of the past, and brings attention to the present of the present, the present of the future may be a modality that writing practice itself speaks to most usefully. Although texts appear to be bound to time, they are not; ‘Their meaning stretches out to me beyond the meaning their writers ever had’ (Dening 2001: 32). Gilbert suggests that the act of writing ‘continues to produce, independent of its “author”’ (Gilbert 1986: 168). Extending this concept specifically to poetry, Plath writes that it does not worry her that poetry seems to reach so few people, since it is also able to reach beyond our work places, ‘farther than a lifetime’ (Plath 1977: 99). Writing itself is outside time. It is not timeless, since that is a euphemism. The effect of writing, as an extension of an author’s work, is not cosmological time but a distension into the future for an as yet unknown audience at an unknown time, replete with unknown effects. It is the closest writers get to living forever, but we are not literally living forever by writing and/or publishing our work; this is, again, distension. Others may be envious of the fact that for artists, ‘the past survives in another form’ (Nin 1974b: 177). Thus the distension is two-fold in writing, extending into the past from the present, and then through the act of writing into the future from the present.
Since the processes of writing/composition and performance/recitation imply a unique engagement with the various aspects of time as experienced through poetry and lyric, it is important to discuss the creation and production of the artefact. We will do this in the following section and we will explore our own work, as composers and performers, in light of Augustine’s theory and application of the modalities of time.
Singing the future
Augustine invokes the experience of listening or reciting/singing in order to illustrate the awareness of transition versus distension. ‘A person singing or listening to a song he knows well suffers a distension or stretching in feeling and in sense-perception from the expectation of future sounds and the memory of past sound’ (Confessions XI.31.41). A song or a poem can disrupt our sense of the present insofar as distension makes us aware of its root, whether that is the memory of the past or the expectation of the future. Similar to meditation, the song or poem focuses the mind on the present of the present through the required processing of the music and/or words, thereby removing the veil of psychological time and making one aware of cosmological time. The song is the vehicle through which we present our own poems, and ∆.
The poem plays within a circle of memory and projection or expectation, past and future. At every point one is aware of the rest of the circle that has no beginning and no end, much like the moebius ring which circles in on itself. Therefore the poem, in both content and structure, is free of the constraints of sequentiality and reminds us that simultaneity is a reality. [Click here to listen to ]
In each line of the reader is made aware of all three elements that make up the circle of the family; mother, father, child. For example, in order for ‘father said a child’ to be realised the mother must be present. Similarly, ‘should be a man’ implies the growth of the child, the roles of fathering and mothering, and the child’s later relationship with a woman. This circle forms an example of cosmological time, non-linear and unbroken. When singing the song, which is sung as a round and repeated three times, we are aware of the sounds and words which have already been uttered and at the same time we are in expectation of those which are about to be released. This is similar to Augustine’s experience of reciting a psalm which he knows well; ‘the life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory because of the words I have already said and into my expectation because of those which I am about to say. But my attention is on what is present’ (Confessions XI.28.38). The repetition of lyric and melody, which consolidates memory and projection, as opposed to the need for remembering changes, is anti-linear and evokes cosmological time. This has a grounding effect much like meditation. It further serves to heighten our attention to and perception of the present, the primacy of the immediate, and a strong sensation of transition while shortening and minimalizing the experience of distension. [Click here to listen to ∆]
The poem ∆, unlike , makes a distension into the time of the past in an attempt to understand present circumstances. This attempt brings a sense of peace, together with an ability to look forward to the time of the future. The poem questions how we move through time and how personality is developed. In the early part of the poem, psychological time is predominant, yet the present of the present is suggested as a kind of mid-ground. The moon and the field, around which later movements unfold, become intimately connected with the development of personality and suggest cosmological time, as well as a venturing into the time of the future, via an active continuous present. Although on the surface, the three points representing the three modalities are separate, they interact increasingly via a foregrounding of the cosmological. The experience of singing this particular song, in which the melody repeats but the lyrics are altered, achieves a highlighting of transition and distention in a different way. The repetition of melody demands an attention to the present. By contrast, the movement of the lyrics constantly requires distention, both into the past and into the future, in order to link the imagery and in order to attempt answering the questions presented.
Summing up the three modalities
The meditational attributes of the creative writer come to the fore, as suggested by the quotations from Nin and Ricoeur and evidenced in our poem . In contrast, the transitions between the various sections of Paterson’s Africa are characterised by a dynamic energy which continually reconfigures the distension into time past. In either case, attention to the present of the present is emphasised and evoked, thereby bringing to the fore cosmological time, which simply is. The distension into the time of the future is minimalized by these effects, and also nuanced and implied by interplay with a sense of cosmological time, as in ∆.
Augustine’s outline of the relationship between the three modalities finds expression in the poetry we have analysed and written. The measurability of time, though an important question for the philosopher is much less important for the poet, who, instead, has the option of manipulating representations of time and structures which appeal to time. The poetic artefact facilitates, through its non-structural elements, a discernment of cosmological time by disrupting the link between the two distensions of memory and expectation. This brings into focus the present of the present, which we argue is essentially cosmological and anti-linear. Poetry also, unavoidably, facilitates the imposition of psychological time through its structures. Imposition and disruption woven through our discernment and attention are the warp and weft that compose our reading of a poem.
Owen Bullock is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. His publications include urban haiku (Recent Work Press, 2015), breakfast with epiphanies (Oceanbooks, NZ, 2012) and sometimes the sky isn’t big enough (Steele Roberts, NZ, 2010). He has edited a number of journals and anthologies, including Poetry New Zealand. He won the Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Poetry in 2015.
Niloofar Fanaiyan has a PhD from the University of Canberra where she is currently a Donald Horne Creative and Cultural Research Fellow and a member of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. Her research interests include narrative theory, poetry, and dream writing.
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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo