Thursday, January 10, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 3

Let's look at the moral argument against "experimental" poetry from still another angle:

The "does this poem have a right to exist?" argument contra experimental poetry rehashes familiar arguments contra "difficult" poetry. The problem with the position contra difficulty in poetry is that it usually reduces to the complaint that "you made me work too hard to understand you!" The arguments against difficult poetry are invalidated by the examples of great poems that are indeed "difficult"—especially in the context of their original publication—at least some of the time, for some readers. Never for all, it might be added. The hypothetical reading audience is never as homogenous as a critic's reductive rhetorical stance pretends it to be. One reason poetry itself is so diverse is because of the lack of homogeneity in readership and among writers. That's actually healthy. If we were to all write the same, conform to all the same standards, rules, and attitudes and opinions, what a dull and boring world it would be—and it would be a world in which new ideas were never formed. It would be a static world, not a dynamic. In your arguments contra experimentation, I doubt anyone would really advocate that level of stasis. Or perhaps they would.

The tricky thing about nostalgic conservatism is that it is always based upon an illusion and a projection: the past was never that rosy, the streets were never paved in gold, except in the contemporary imaginative projection onto the past, and the reason the past always seems happier is that, in a progressive/entropic worldview, it can always be assumed to be simpler, less complicated, easier to navigate. The truth is, that's always an illusion. The present moment, which becomes the past, is always tricky to navigate, a harsh muddle, and kills you in the end.

Arguments contra non-standard syntax, non-standard arrangement, and non-standard grammar are never really about orthography, they're really about non-standard typography.

It's hard not to see such arguments as a rehash of the standard (conservative) neo-formalist argument that "correct grammar and syntax must be used at all times," even in poetry. That's nothing more than a straw-man set up to be easily knocked down. Since poetry isn't prose, non-prose syntax and grammar are not only allowable, but according to some definitions of poetry—for example, "poetry is heightened language, focused and condensed"—in fact poetry should use non-prose syntax, grammar, and arrangement. Poetry is not prose: get over it.

Not that there isn't merit to some aspects of the neo-formalist position, when their arguments are applied to formal, metric verse. But applying those same arguments across the board to all poetry, including vers libre and free verse, or prose-poetry, is problematic in the extreme. It's like applying the rules of badminton to chess: an error in fundamental assumptions about the rules in play.

The moral argument contra my unusually-structured poem, that set this all off, completely misses the point that the poem never attempted to conform to formal, metrical, syntactical standards. That was never in my mind. In fact, the poem depicts olne kind of stream-of-consciousness moving in a free-flow manner.

It is necessary to remember that there is a very important distinction between orthography and typography. They're not the same thing, and conflating them isn't helpful. Orthography means "correct language usage," while typography refers to the presentation of text on the page (or screen). Speaking as a typographer and graphic designer, the presentation of text on the page (or screen), whether transparent or opaque, is a completely separate discussion from any discussion of what the poem means. Orthographers talk about grammar, syntax, and punctuation; typographers talk about legibility. To confuse the two confuses content and meaning with the letterforms used to depict meaning and content.

In that sense, the use of run-on stream-of-consciousness text in the poem is the correct depiction of meaning and content; no orthographic "rules" were broken. The text in that poem was legible and clear, as well.

Unless the real objection to the poem is that it was difficult to read—which is yet another discussion entirely. The argument about whether or not poetry has to be easy to understand, or can be difficult and require some work and thought, is an argument that has nothing to do with either orthography or typography. Don't confuse them.

You can object to my typography and poetic syntax all you want to, but my orthography remains intact. Orthography also refers to more than merely correct punctuation. But again, this seems like another re-hash of a neo-formalist argument against matters of style rather than matters of mere punctuation. The argument chooses to ignore, or outright discard, most of the experiments and innovations in writing that have appeared in the past 150 years in English literature; both Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain said some pithy things about it.

It's hard not to see the argument as really having nothing to do with the actual poem, and everything to do with (the neo-conservative counter-attack against) experimentation, in whatever form the latter takes. Which is of course a perfectly valid argument to make; except of course there are perfectly valid arguments that have been made from other and opposing viewpoints, as well.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

that same status quo stuckness
I find
to the post avant
"schools" of poetry

I did not find this poem
in any way
in almost all cases
I have not used any punctuation
in my own poetry

paring away
you might say
applies to those little marks
as well as to unnecessary words

and amen!
to what you say
about the whole publication business
not a factor
in the creative process
for me either


7:59 AM  
Anonymous Allen Taylor said...

I like what you are saying here, and I agree. Your analogy to badminton is right on. You are essentially saying the same thing that I've argued in my Millennial Poetics series. I'd be interested in hearing what you have to say about it.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments.

I've looked over your series, not yet in exquisite detail, and I'd have to think about it. There are a few nits that I'd have to pick, although a lot of it makes sense, so far.

I am at the moment prevented from signing in total agreement because I do not believe that poetry is an intellectual thing, and I never have. I've written here a lot about my reasons for that, so I won't rehash it all. Basically, my experience of writing poetry has never been an intellectual process; for me, it's an intuitive one.

Perhaps that's all semantics, and can be cleared by figuring out the definitions of terms.


10:12 PM  

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