The Poetry Porch 3: Poetics

Query Re One's Work
an essay by Julia Budenz

Can a mother write a life of her child? Should a daughter write a biography of her father? Is autobiography possible and valid? One’s literary work is offspring and parent and self. Can one write about one’s own work? Should one write about one’s own work? These are not the questions which I intend to address. My inquiry appears simpler but is no less problematic: What shall I choose to say about my work once the basic questions have been evaded? Even more precisely, I ask myself what I will decide to say selectively and briefly about a work in progress that is very long and complex.

My work is a poem. This characteristic is essential. The ensemble is not a collection. It is not a series of poems. It is not even really a poetic sequence, although I sometimes refer to it as such. It does contain what I call units or pieces, which are designated by separate titles and have no further named subdivisions. These units vary greatly in length. "Via," for example, which is Chapter Three of Part Three of Book Three, consists of only four lines, while "Umbra," which is the first chapter of the same part and book, runs to 125 long-lined and single-spaced pages.

As these few facts may have suggested, the poem is very long, having reached already more than a thousand pages. It bears the title "The Gardens of Flora Baum." Flora Baum is the protagonist, whose name implies the prevalence of flower and tree. Her fuller name, Flora Urania Baum, reveals the additional imagery of sky. This triple name further indicates the three linguistic branches particularly fruitful in the poem: the Greek, both ancient and modern; the Latin, including not only Latin itself but also French and Italian; the Germanic, represented not only by English but also by German and Anglo-Saxon. Finally, the heroine's name in the central book or central garden appears in a special form as Julia Flora of the Tiber to intimate the centrality of Rome in the geographical pattern and historical progress of the poem.

The gardens are five, comprising the five books. The first garden is the garden of the holy; its book explores transcendence, is located partially in Eden, and draws upon imagery from the Bible and the liturgy. Its title, "By the Tree of Life," indicates that despite its strong center this book may be considered a Paradise Lost, as is suggested also by the names of its five parts: "Sum," "The Path Approaching," "Epiphany," "The Waves Receding," and "Difference."

The second garden is the garden of the beautiful; its book contemplates the aesthetic, is situated partially in Greece, and makes use of Greek literature, mythology, and geography. This second book, which is called "Towards a Greek Garden," has a midpoint as well as a final destination and also consists of five parts, whose names intimate both the patterned centering and the linear progression: "The Program," "Iliad," "The History," "Odyssey," "The Diagram." Since Flora Baum reaches the Greek garden, the second book may be designated a Paradise Regained.

The third garden is that of the true, specifically of academic knowledge, of scholarship, of learning. Its book, entitled "Rome," uses material from Roman literature, history, and topography. This is the pivotal book in the design and development of the poem; its three parts—"Urbiculture," "Floralia," and "Umbrageous Vision"—mark not only a center which is both city and garden but also a difficult struggle to pass through pedantry to erudition and insight.

The fourth garden is that of the good and blooms with human relations. Its book, "Towards Farthest Thule," is set partly in Britain, finally in Shetland. As might be expected, it utilizes English and Scottish literature, folklore, and geography. The book begins with a long ballad, "The Lay of the Last Monk," continues with an epyllion called "Sibyl," and concludes with a sequence of lyrics, "Lyre, Harp, Violin."

The fifth and final garden is the garden of the whole. Its book, "By the Tree of Knowledge," is the philosophical book, the one most fully placed in Flora's native America but also situated in her native world, in her homeland the earth, in her home the universe. It is the book of the elm, rooted and reaching. It grounds itself not only in a meditation upon philosophy but also in social science and physical science, in culture and nature, in the microcosm and the mesocosm and the macrocosm, in the final paracosm, the final paradigm and paradise. It is the book which I will write if I can live long enough and become wise enough to do it. "O mihi tum longae maneat pars ultima vitae," I find myself crying out with Virgil, hoping to touch this great beginning or end or center or edge.

Thus the work forms a static circle but also moves ahead through space and time, presenting Flora Baum’s interests or values or passions. Like Newon’s force of inertia, it may involve either motion or rest, since, as an epigraph reminds the reader, "motus & quies, uti vulgo concipiuntur, respectu solo distinguuntur ab invicem." The subject of the poem is desire, to such an extent that Flora might exclaim with Rilke: "Ach, die Gärten bist du,/ ach ich sah sie mit solcher/ Hoffnung." The holy, the beautiful, the true, the good, the whole are all desired. Flora is "In essence a question/ Of desire," as she says at the center of Book Two. But not only is the poem about desire. The poem itself is desired.

Yet my remarks about it are trivial and dull. I have talked about names and titles. I have described the schematic structure of the poem. I have spoken abstractly and superficially about the content. What shall I say that is both detailed and profound? I can envisage my reply very clearly. I will examine sound, meaning, and structure. I will discuss the structure of sound and the structure of meaning. I will demonstrate how the poem includes both pattern and progress, how its arrangement is both closed and open, how it combines deep seriousness and irrepressible play. I will explain its genre, its connections with lyric and pastoral and didactic and epic forms. I will reflect upon its relations with romanticism and modernism and postmodernism, its gaze toward past and present and possible future.

But my discussion will be reductive if not completely misleading. The written part of the poem stands before me in the bulk of what it is. The unwritten part hovers above it as the bright haze of what is envisioned. My intentions fly hither and thither between me and what I have wrought. I cannot take the time to argue. I must concentrate on making the poem.

One should not write about one’s work. One cannot write about one’s work. The poem presents itself. Its critics and historians must be its biographers.

© Coyright 1997 By Julia Budenz

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