Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 6: Showing versus telling

I was scanning Ron Silliman's blog some weeks ago, as I occasionally do, and he had a review of a movie by Bhutanese monk and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu, Travellers and Magicians. (To read Mr. Silliman's review, click here and scroll down to the August 11, 2006, entry.) There's a comment that Mr. Silliman makes, down the page, that I think is pertinent to each and every poet, at one time or another:

Balancing the two narrative lines [of the film under review] is difficult enough, but the real challenge for Khyentse Norbu is how to create a film that is deeply & openly spiritual without, by that fact alone, becoming preachy. It’s a distinction that Rachel Blau DuPlessis makes in the title essay of her new book, Blue Studios, between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it, “thinking hard for all of us”) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process (DuPlessis herself is a great example of the latter, as are, say, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & Barrett Watten).

The key phrase here that I want to discuss, in the context of these notes towards an egoless poetry, is this: the distinction between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it . . .) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process. Poems that think for you, and poems that model what thinking is actually like (by demonstration), and thus encourage you to think for yourself, and also teach you how to do it. Poems that hand you their conclusions on a sliver platter, and poems that encourage you to make your own conclusions, as a reader. Poems that preach at you, and poems that pull you in by resonating with your own experience. Poems wherein the poet tells you what ot think, and poems that are open-minded and indeterminate of interpretation.

This is not limited to purely surface poetic details, experiences from daily life that readers might be expected to share with the poet. If we assume that that is all that poetry can convey, then all we have left is confessional poetry, journal-poetry. All we can write about is our cats, our children, and our sex lives. (Thank you, Robert Lowell and the other "confessional poets," for opening wide this door, that may ultimately leads us to collections of journal-based pseudo-poems such as Hal Sirowitz' My Therapist Said.)

If on the other hand poetic resonance goes beyond the superficial and mundane, which I think it does, it can also include poems that embody deep spiritual, philosophical, and even religious truths (as opposed to truisms), such as what might be the key phrase of dialogue in Khyentse Norbu's film: "the Buddha says hope causes suffering." The film demonstrates this truth not by baldly stating it as a truism, but by demonstrating it again and again through narrative events, fable, and thoughtful character moments. One of my all-time favorite films, which achieves this level of demonstration, is Ron Fricke's Baraka. (Fricke was also the cinematographer for Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of films beginning with Koyaanisqatsi.)

If cinema can do this, then so can poetry.

Perhaps we can develop a style of what we might call cinematic poetry, which presents imagery without (surface) explanation, in sequential presentation out of which meaning arises organically. This is in fact something I've been working at for some years now, with occasionally successful individual poems, although my attempts towards this type of poetry have often been dismissed a priori as experimental.

Even though it has become a cliche in poetry-critique circles, this distinction between "showing" and "telling" does get at the very root of a common problem with many contemporary poems, in that many poets tell you what's going on, rather than showing you. The distinction is also expressed as abstract/philosophical vs. concrete/imagistic. (Haiku poets take note.) The problem is that telling the reader what's going on is perilously close to telling the reader what to think, and what to conclude (the chief reason why most political poetry becomes preachy rather than engaging).

Without making any value judgments about which route is superior as a style of "pure poetry"—if there is such a thing, which I question—I will nevertheless make a personal (philosophical? moral? ethical?) judgment about which is more fun for me to read, and about which I strive to write: namely, the showing rather than the telling poem.

I prefer poetry that engages not only the mind but also the body: the gut emotions, the somatic sense of kinesthetic prioperception, poems that pull the reader inside the experience of the poem (rather than simply describing that experience to you, or telling you what it was). Poems that are experiential rather than reportorial.  Poems of the manifest world, rather than poems that exist only in the mind, or only on the page. Poems that can be simply a presentation of images and events, out of which meaning arises on its own, without pedantic aide. Poems that make you feel them from the inside, rather than leaving you as a detached, outside, bodyless observer. From the cinematic perspective, the point-of-view-without-a-body that is the camera lens is capable of evoking a visceral response in the viewer—emotional, somatic, kinesthetic—on a level that written text, by itself, is not.

In terms of cinema itself, I'm often drawn towards shorter, imagistic, low-dialogue, non-narrative films. Cinema is narrative and non-narrative, of course, sometimes simultaneously. I think poetry can be, too. This does verge on that terrain where words fail, and other, non-verbal artforms, really may have an edge over poetry. I'd hardly call dance more abstract than poetry, because dance is kinesthetic, whereas poetry can be (literally) all in the mind. I'm using the word "abstract" to refer to disembodiment, I realize that, but that's intentional, because that's the usage of "abstract" as it arises from historical Western philosophy, religious thought including theology, and, therfore, its parallel usage in Western art criticism. If that wasn't explicit before, let it be so now.

If it seems as though I keep returning to this topic in various essays (embodiment rather than disembodiment) it's because I think it's so very very important, and because it's no very very inevident in much of contemporary poetry. I see very little showing, and very much more raw telling, in contemporary poetry, especially in poetry that attempts to divorce thought from soma. (I think it might be a problem on the level of getting fish to see that they're breathing water: overlooked because inherent; unseen because taken for normal.)

I admit to being drawn to haiku and its related forms, in part, because the classical Japanese tradition emphasizes concreteness and imagery over overt philosophical statement: letting the meaning arise from the images and the described moment, rather than telling the reader what the meaning is, explicitly and directly. There is a certain obliqueness to this approach, relative to much other poetic literature, that I appreciate: even while the poem itself is direct, concrete, and physical, it contains layers and depths of resonant meaning. (In haiku much of that is generated by allusion rather than metaphor, which is possible within a shared literary tradition, if most readers have read the same sets of classic texts: the advantage of a shared tradition.)

It's possible, I believe, although I'm not always sure what it would look like, to have a poetry of embodiment out of which also arises engagement, empathy, and shared experience, and even spritual and philosophical truth (again, demonstrated by example, rather than simply restating a truism). I suspect this was the original appeal of much Zen-inspired Beat poetry, no matter how quickly the original impulse devolved into mannerism and imitated trope (which is very much how I view many post-Beat poets of lesser gifts, not excluding McClure). Of that group, I tend to view Gary Snyder as having had the longest string of successful examples of embodied philosophy in his poems. I confess to a possible bias, there, as my own concerns and experience and interests are closer to Snyder's than many others of that group. (Though, as a gay poet/artist myself, I have always found fellow-feeling in much of Ginsberg's explicitly homoerotic poems, even though many of them may be of overall lesser artistic merit.)

So, it's nice to encounter artistic products, be they film or poem, that seem to move in this direction, of embodied philosophy, enacted truth, demonstrated-by-example thinking, rather than telling and preaching and pedantry. Examples of what is artistically possible, along these lines, are always welcome.

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