Michael Wood

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

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2 Responses to Michael Wood

  1. shinichi says:

    ElizabethBishopAt the Fishhouses

    from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979

    by Elizabeth Bishop

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182896

    Although it is a cold evening,
    down by one of the fishhouses
    an old man sits netting,
    his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
    a dark purple-brown,
    and his shuttle worn and polished.
    The air smells so strong of codfish
    it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
    The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
    and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
    to storerooms in the gables
    for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
    All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
    swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
    is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
    the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
    among the wild jagged rocks,
    is of an apparent translucence
    like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
    growing on their shoreward walls.
    The big fish tubs are completely lined
    with layers of beautiful herring scales
    and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
    with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
    with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
    Up on the little slope behind the houses,
    set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
    is an ancient wooden capstan,
    cracked, with two long bleached handles
    and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
    where the ironwork has rusted.
    The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
    He was a friend of my grandfather.
    We talk of the decline in the population
    and of codfish and herring
    while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
    There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
    He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
    from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
    the blade of which is almost worn away.

    Down at the water’s edge, at the place
    where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
    descending into the water, thin silver
    tree trunks are laid horizontally
    across the gray stones, down and down
    at intervals of four or five feet.

    Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
    element bearable to no mortal,
    to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
    I have seen here evening after evening.
    He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
    like me a believer in total immersion,
    so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
    I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
    He stood up in the water and regarded me
    steadily, moving his head a little.
    Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
    almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
    as if it were against his better judgment.
    Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
    the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
    the dignified tall firs begin.
    Bluish, associating with their shadows,
    a million Christmas trees stand
    waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
    above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
    I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
    slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
    icily free above the stones,
    above the stones and then the world.
    If you should dip your hand in,
    your wrist would ache immediately,
    your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
    as if the water were a transmutation of fire
    that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
    If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
    then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
    It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
    dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
    drawn from the cold hard mouth
    of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
    forever, flowing and drawn, and since
    our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

  2. shinichi says:

    Michael Wood

    Literature and the Taste of Knowledge

    by Michael Wood

    http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/literature/english-literature-1900-1945/literature-and-taste-knowledge?format=PB#contentsTabAnchor

    Introduction: Among the analogies

    In her poem ‘At the Fishhouses’ Elizabeth Bishop contemplates the cold, clear water of a northern sea. She says she has

    seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
    slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
    icily free above the stones,
    above the stones and then the world.

    She has seen it and she tells us what it would be like to touch it (‘your wrist would ache immediately … and your hand would burn’). And then what it would be like to taste it:

    If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
    then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
    It is like what we imagine knowledge to be.

    This is not quite an imagination of knowledge, only of what knowledge resembles, but we sense the appeal and the severity of the claim immediately. Bishop’s analogue for knowledge is ‘dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,/drawn from the cold hard mouth/of the world’, and ‘our knowledge’ itself is, she says, ‘historical, flowing, and flown’.

    We may want to associate knowledge, as many poets have, with southern lands rather than northern seas, and we may want to leave geography and metaphor behind, locating knowledge only in the minds of animals, especially humans. But whatever we do, as long as we don’t let go of the project entirely, we shall have made a move towards the double subject of this book: the act of representing knowledge, especially elusive knowledge, in words; and the nature of the knowledge that literary arrangements of words can offer us.

    But does literature offer us knowledge? It certainly represents it, as we have just seen. But a representation is, by definition, not the thing itself, and both literature and knowledge are words worth using carefully. There are all kinds of treasures which are not knowledge, and we should not betray them by giving them the wrong name.

    The worry about the relation between literature and knowledge is a very old one, and it’s not getting any younger. When Dorothy Walsh, in an elegant book called Literature and Knowledge, published in 1969, said the worry was old, she meant it went back at least to Plato. When Stathis Gourgouris says it is old, in a recent book called Does Literature Think?, he means the same thing. ‘The idea that literature might harbor its own mode of knowledge is ancient, at least as old as the so-called quarrel between poetry and philosophy and Plato’s notorious expulsion of the poets from the city in the Republic. It is fair to say that since Plato’s famous decision there has been an implicit but consistent association of the poetic act with a peculiar, mysterious, and even dangerous sort of knowledge.’ Actually, even Socrates, who was the one making the decision, thought the worry was old, and apologized for his dismissal of poetry by saying, ‘But in case we are charged with a certain harshness and lack of sophistication, let’s also tell poetry that there is an ancient quarrel between it and philosophy.’

    But Plato’s worry is not ours, and indeed our worry, in 2005, is perhaps not quite the worry we might have had, did have, in 1969. This is one of the things it means to possess knowledge that is ‘historical, flowing, and flown’. Or if the question we are asking is the same – to quote Dorothy Walsh, ‘What kind of knowledge, if any, does literary art afford?’, or more delicately, ‘Do works of literary art, when functioning successfully as such, have any intimate engagement with what may be called knowledge?’ – our reasons for asking it are different, and so is our idea of what might constitute an interesting answer. Walsh thought that the disengagement of literature from direct knowledge claims might ‘be seen as the liberation of literature from the alien and extraneous burden of cognitive concern. So liberated, literature is free to develop its potentialities strictly as art.’ The opposite view, she suggested, was not engagement with direct knowledge but a different sense of disengagement, the view that ‘the disengagement provides the opportunity for the recognition of the distinctive kind of cognitive significance literary art can have’. ‘Shall we see the disengagement as the liberation of Ariel?’ Walsh asked. ‘Or … shall we say that the magic island … cannot be abandoned and that the control of Prospero over both Ariel and Caliban must be sustained?’ I don’t think many people are recommending the liberation of Ariel these days, or a picture of literature ‘strictly as art’, and I don’t wish to recommend them myself. But I do want to wonder, as Walsh did, whether the only alternative is total submission to Prospero.

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