Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Poems and Carpentry

Today's post is about carpenters, and poets tooling their words.

Meet the Carpenter Poets of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts:

"There's much to be said about parallels between writing and carpentry. There's the act of creating something out of common supplies, fitting board to board, word to word, the beauty of the product and the pride in the craft. The house we live in, the poem that lives in us."

Carpenters and the tools of one's trade provide a rich source of metaphors for the difficulties one faces in life but can also be a meditation on life in general, as well as the act of creation and pride in one's craft.   (Some fine examples, over at Salamander Cove yesterday (2010121): a valve becomes the conduit for "the one-way flow of time we take for granted"; an aging carpenter dreams of a scaffold that'll take him higher and higher; a poet whose stock and trade is words, admires the carpenter's way ... )

Poets sometimes write about their everyday worktools, objects used to fashion other objects, paralleling the skill and creativity one puts into creating a poem. Dave Bonta over at Via Negativa, for example, has recently published a book called Odes to Tools, a collection of 25 poems inspired by common hand tools. ("Doesn't a favorite tool often become more than just an instrument of the worker's will? Doesn't every successful tool in fact acquire a bit of an aura ...?")

In Carpenters of Light  (A Critical Study of Contemporary British Poetry by Neil Powell, published in 1979-80), a chapter is devoted to Donald Davie: Poet as Carpenter, on page 60. Unfortunately, the online version only goes up to page 55. Curious, I googled Donald Davie and found his poem "Under the Grain," where his interplay of words common to carpentry (grain/ingrained, peeling/shavings, planes, level, shelving, etc. are juxtaposed with images of tortured love. I've read this poem four times and each time discover something new and absolutely mind-grabbing in it.

Under the Grain

Why, by an ingrained habit, elevate
Into their own ideas,
Activities like carpentry, become
The metaphors of graining?
Gardening, the one word, tilth? Or thought,
The idea of having ideas,
Resolved into images of tilth and graining?

An ingrained habit . . . this is fanciful;
And there's the rub
Bristling, where the irritable block
Screams underneath the blade
Of love's demand, or in crimped and gouged-out
Shavings only, looses
Under a peeling logic its perceptions.

Language (mine, when wounding,
Yours, back-biting) lacks
No whorl nor one-way shelving. It resists,
Screams its remonstrance, planes
Reluctantly to a level. And the most
Reasonableness of settlements betrays
Unsmoothed resentment under the caress.

~~ Donald Davie

The Sewanee Review, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Winter, 1959).

I'm not very good at carpentry (or sewing, or weaving, or house repair or concocting culinary masterpieces) but I do love working with words and creating artful images, writing children's and other stories, and watching master craftsmen and craftswomen--carpenters and poets alike--at work. My tool is a beloved green fountain pen, with an extra-fine nib, or a sometimes quirky computer keyboard. Like an apprentice, I marvel at what can be done with fabric and leather and wood and stone--and words. How does one become accomplished in these endeavors? Practice, practice, practice. (Write, write, write.)  But for now, I'm getting much more pleasure out of just looking. So many varied 'weavings' to marvel at;  so many ideas for future creations. There are not enough hours in the day, or days in the year.

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