Conjunctions

By: Chris Harris Jan 16

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Variety in all activities has proven healthy for me. There was a time not long ago during which I was suspicious of my own tendency for caprice, and the best way of living seemed to be in a strict observation of habit. Writing poetry was my first pleasure as an adult, and it remains primary, but even that has not been free from my scolding self. The things we love doing most often are often first in line to be scrutinized, especially the hard and rigorous ones. And let no one say that poetry is not difficult. To know its difficulty is to know that one is not too simple-minded.

I enjoy prose, being, as I am when writing or reading it, free from verse. Poetry is all form and figure, and it is not for nothing that it shares a trope with music. For that, I appreciate and look for a musical or poetic kind of prose, though I am aware that my own fingers stop the wrong holes, often more than they do the right ones. I am not speaking of the kind of prose so heaped with flux that the flame can’t conduct its warmth into the steel beneath, and Latin drips from off the joint unused. Good prose borrows the best and most basic parts of poetry and acknowledges that it does so.

Meter in speech and letter is pleasant to those who speak English, an accentual language, and each of us is a connoisseur and critic of musical speech having heard since infancy songs and rhymes. It is enough that we like it, even if we don’t understand it. Much of what is called popular music today is insensible to the reason but lovable to the mind. We don’t care or even know what is being sung as long as what is sung sounds right. Internal rhyme and the composition of paragraphs in prose are minor elements of form that nevertheless are relevant to those capable of thinking about and appreciating such things. Sentences of variable length and dictional formality are the temper of monotony; this is the linguistic equivalent of modulation in music. It may be that the writer alone knows or cares about those strokes of the file best placed and most appealing to him or her in the solitude that is the condition of all craftsmen. It encourages me that not all of these traces are missed all of the time, that they do not oxidize and scale too thickly with age.

If formal restriction is reserved mostly for poetry, trope or figure is shared among the genres. Poetry is all trope, all invention, restrained by the formal shape, at least the best of it is. Trope satisfies our need for resemblance, to bind together as Wallace Stevens says, and fresh tropes satisfy the part of the mind that exalts the difficulty of binding an old fact of the world with a new resemblance in something else. Some commentators have married particular tropes to their espoused genres, but this kind of speculation bears no children for me in theory or practice. I know and like three kinds: metaphor, irony, metonymy. A variety is desirable. I thank a poet or a writer of prose for revealing to me his or her metamorphoses, and appreciate my own in those privileged moments when they come.

I know a frame builder who refuses to join metal tubes in any way other than by the arc. He has spent years making puddles, watching them crystallize into overlapping shingles, knitting the seam of steel, titanium or aluminum, and he now a has a reputation. He reaps the corn of this rote practice. I have heard him explain sequences by which a frame is first unaligned by the distorting effects of heating and cooling on one quadrant of a joint, then brought back to straightness by welding the remaining fourths in turns. Frame builders are practiced in these rigors, but none more so, I think, than those who TIG. There is great heat, enough to melt the base metal, and so the distortion is potentially greater. This builder is capable of brazing. I have seen photographs of at least one lugged frame and plenty of S&S couplers but I don’t know what it takes, what cajoling, what favors, to get him to agree to lugs or fillets. He prefers his way and it has benefited him to stick to what his temperament demands.

TIG welding is the equivalent of an instruction manual, the best of which serve the user at the price of the pleasures of reading. We do not say that they are less successful for that fact; we could say that they are more so. The best instructional writing is the easiest to follow, and the best welded frames clearly display the cut of their craftsmen. It is writing aware of its own rhetoric; it must never mislead. We read it to achieve some other thing, and it is most useful when it presents itself in even, bland words. It should be succinct but of no prescribed length. Titanium frames in particular achieve much with little flamboyance, and to be sure there is something like art to welding, but only like. I do not count the scales of each welded joint looking for some meaning, measuring their diameters and marking the range, but I know the integrity of it, or think I do, by appearance. I could probably distinguish between the work of a few builders, but to do that could not tell me anything of each builder’s intent. My titanium frame is well-built, not well-sculpted. It is enough that it works.

A fillet frame looks to me like a good essay reads. The sense of that word, essay, that means an attempt at truth based on the writer’s reasonable capabilities, is no longer the rule. It is the sense I prefer. A good essay is straight or misaligned according to its particulars, but it is the sum of those particulars that makes the impression. Each joint in the argument must be integral, polished, at once a vital part of the whole body but not overgrown or superfluous. When the brass is cleaned brilliant gold by the file and the shop roll, we can see the work that was invested in it. But a steel frame that is to be ridden is always finished with paint lest it is assaulted by the atmosphere. Once covered up, the fillet is thought to be bad or half-done if it can be easily seen. There are very few who work only in brass because, it seems, the best of them must acknowledge that the bulk of their labor is done so that it should go unnoticed. An essay possesses its force, if it has any at all, when its rhetorical middle keeps the points in close orbit, serving it. The whole frame, and not the mastery of each clause or figure, makes the impression.

There is a builder who appears to love making metal puddles, and he likes to display the fineness of his raw joints before he polishes them. Cover them all with baked powder and I could still discern the man by his craft. He argues implicitly for what is durable and practical. Would another builder favor a lug because one from the same cast was once brazed into the frame that was ridden to victory in this or that Spring Classic? He does not. Criticizing this builder’s work is as impossible as disjointing a well-fitted essay as long as he has made his piece seamless, each fillet as integral and flush as the others.

All words are tropes, one thing representing another; a kind of code taken for granted through usage. Bad tropes are those that no longer carry with them fresh associations, un-thought-of meanings, and they come and go without even annoying our sensibilities. There is a flutist who practices the same slurs and arpeggios day after day, season after season, in her apartment directly above mine, and what was once a solid impediment when I wrote at my desk, a rock slide on the tracks, has passed in my notice of it from mist to nothing at all. Perhaps a shift to major thirds instead of her minors would slow my writing down; for now it is not even a stink in the air. This volatility must be avoided when writing, especially in poetry. Banal or threadbare language is acceptable only when to use it is the point, and then only for short intervals. And poetry loves form, a restriction on the fast current of words, a good shape to the meanders it makes. A poet chooses a form and composes what is possible with the substance that is his or her medium: words and spaces, meter and line.

The lugged bicycle frame resists any formal innovation: the sonnet of Petrarch’s remains as solid as Shakespeare’s, as Keats’, as Frost’s. The angles of the lug sockets are the confines of form through which all variations are possible. A builder distinguishes himself by the imagination he has joined the disparate parts in a way that could be called troping. He has an angle and diameters to work with more or less, and builds the joint, creates his representation. Why carve a lug at all if not to be figurative, if not to represent other things that are not lugs? Why bind tubes together with lugs? Is it that the frame might one day be repaired? No. There are necessities and reasons that lugs exist and there is the art to make when those things are taken for granted.

A lug unshaped by the builder’s file is a dead metaphor, and any poet who would write with so common a cast to his metal would be rightly ignored. Modification, the builder’s capabilities with the raw stuff, is essential. I can’t be bothered when I see round lug points. Cast-in windows ought to be carved out until there is no chance of identifying the old, tired locution. Too much of this embellishment in poetry and the progress and the flow of language is encumbered or made unrecognizable; it will not be diverted for long before it overflows the bounds and straightens itself on its more natural course. Too little and we pay no attention. A lug cannot endure to be something other than a lug: it loses what is essential, its function as a joint. But the heavy, shapeless casting is pointless.

Builders do not acquit themselves of the art simply by appealing to craftsmanship. The flame was ignited generations ago, and no one can force it back inside the torch. Which frame is better than the one still hot in the fixture or clamp? Which poem pleases more than the one that has not yet been altered by revision? We do not look to the past for the best models. Those today are better than the monumental works of yesterday. Experiment, flexibility, the far-flung casts the mind makes, these dissolve the glassy crust so that we can see what good file work there is to do before the next endeavor. A friend of mine said to me yesterday, if he will suffer me to paraphrase him, that a perfect museum is only built once.

There is no way of life so stupid and feeble as that which is conducted by rules and discipline. I have seen writers become cramped and mannered for all their ritual and superstition. Who doesn’t know a person who can’t be bothered to change his daily habits of evacuation, who refuses go downtown because there is no toilet as accommodating as his well-worn example? Who doesn’t know a builder who cannot be bothered to put heat to a set of lugs or dropouts he hasn’t yet brazed so many times as to become drudgery? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I finally cannot fear variety, I welcome it. The best materials are those that are not crystalline but malleable to some degree. Where form is less important, it may be that there is a smaller measure of art, but let the material serve our purposes. The greatest variety bound by formal restriction, that is artistic realization. We demand that much; success, per se, comes second.

 

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