Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random 2

Further thoughts:

7. If I must "understand the theory" behind a poem in order to get anything out of the poem, then the poem is incapable of standing on its own. If a poem isn't capable of standing on its own—providing an experience of reading the poem, of being involved in the poem, of absorption, of interest—then the poem almost always fails. Such poems never make me want to re-read them, to savor them, to go back to them later.

I suppose this is my meta-theoretical statement: my theory about poetic theories.

I don't demand "meaning" or "sense" in a poem—the straw-man set up by many poetic theorists as something they reject in poetry. There are plenty of poems I don't comprehend, the way one comprehends a narrative short story, yet which I still enjoy, as poems. I appreciate, even prefer, an element of Mystery, of the unknown or unknowable. I don't demand a post-Romantic evocation of the mysteries beyond human understanding. I don't demand that every poem be explainable, or even able to be summarized—in fact, if a poem can be too easily summarized, why not write it as a story, even verse story. I can read a poem and be very deeply affected by it and still not know what's going on.

Yet when I see poet-critics require that the poet's theoretical underpinnings be examined, as if in a lecture hall, before one can appreciate the poem on any level, I tend to become suspicious.

Poetry is not supposed to need a decoder ring, or a puzzle-box solution. That so many poet-theorists seem to think poetry does need a decoder ring is precisely why such poets end up talking only amongst themselves, with no public audience. Well, fine, if that's what you want.

I think there's a middle ground between being arcane and obscure for its own sake (like most of the so-called "post-avant"), and pandering to the lowest-common-denominator expectations of public verse (like Rod McKuen or Billy Collins). I think there's room for poetry than can be "difficult" yet still powerfully engaging, not obviously understandable yet very universally human in its complex response to life and love (for example, Rilke, Elytis, Paz). I think there's room for apparently light verse that contains deep and resonant life-experience and learning (for example, James Broughton, who is consistently underestimated in precisely this way).

All too often the theoretical camps that poet-critics fall into, or arrange, are little more than game-pieces in a self-serving turf-war. If a theorist-poet proclaims that I cannot possibly understand his obscure, difficult-to-read poems unless I have read all the same theoretical books on the various post-modern -isms that the poet himself has read, then my usual response is to ignore their poetry. (Yawns are optional.)

This is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes: If you can't dazzle them with substance, baffle them with BS.

I don't even care which theoretical -isms are being cited. Chances are, I have indeed read the theoretical sources being cited, and more. I'm very well-read, and I remember most of what I read. Chances are, I've read more than the poet-theorist in question, at least in terms of diverse and eclectic reading.

Has anyone but me noticed how often the French theorists usually cited during these BS battles—Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Baudriilard, et al.—all owe a heavy debt to reading Freud deeply, but have for the most part deliberately overlooked Jung, Adler, and all the other post-Freudian schools of psychology? Has anyone but me noticed how often the poet-theorists, who cite the -isms of the -ists, have also never read anything but Freud, if they've read that much?

I think that's a real telltale for what one can expect from poets who demand theory before poetry. Chances are, too, that they've read de Sade and Sartre but not Camus and McLuhan. This, too, is telling.

8. Make me feel it in my body.

I've written extensively before about how poetry written from the head, which excludes the soma and the heart, ultimately fails, and why.

When I read poetic criticism these days, I return again and again to what Adrienne Rich originally stated in 1964, which remains relevant even now:

In the period in which my first two books were written I had a much more absolutist approach to the universe than I now have. I also felt—as many people still feel—that a poem was an arrangement of ideas and feelings, pre-determined, and it said what I had already decided it would say. There were occasional surprises, occasions of happy discovery that an unexpected turn could be taken, but control, technical mastery and intellectual clarity were the real goals, and for many reasons it was satisfying to be able to create this kind of formal order in poems.

Only gradually, within the last five or six years, did I begin to feel that these poems, even the ones I liked best and in which I felt I'd said most, were queerly limited, that in many cases I had suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order. . . .

Today, I have to say that what I know I know through making poems. Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials acrrording to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea. Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it. In my earlier poems I told you, as precisely and eloquently as I knew how, about something; in the more recent poems something is happening, something has happened to me and, if I have been a good parent to the poem, something will happen to you who read it.
—from Adrienne Rich's Poetry, the Norton Critical Edition (1975), edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, p. 89

What remains relevant is the insistence that a poem be connected to the soma, and not just a mental exercise. Puzzle-poems, language-poems, most of those who carry the banner of "post-avant" (which really means that they're still engaging with the literary avant-garde of a century ago), usually do little for me, as poems, because they're bound up with the theories, and mostly written from the head. Only a few declared Language Poets have ever managed to get under my skin enough to make me want to re-read them. With most, once I get the gimmick, there's no desire to continue, or to go back and re-read.

Too much literary theory is about gimmicks. Call it theory, call it profound, it's still mostly about gimmicks, tropes, tricks, and tactics. Most theory-driven poetry doesn't inspire the urge to be re-read precisely because the theories aren't that interesting.

What remains so very relevant here is what Rich said about poetry: Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it.

If a poem isn't a somatic experience in its own rite—if it's merely a mental game, and doesn't get me in the guts—then why bother with it?

I'd rather read—and write—poems that are experiences, to poems that tell me about experiences. I focus on this in my own poem-making. I have no problem with a poem that I don't fully understand, if the poem nonetheless becomes an experience. Sometimes the tools of avant-garde or experimental writing—broken syntax, unusual leaps, the arrangement of the projective field—are precisely what a poem needs to create an experience in the reader, regardless of whether the reader's critical-analytical faculties can parse the poem into a theoretical structure or narrative.

Experience first. Explanations later.

9. Inventing another "New Poetry" isn't a way out of poetry hell.

It just recycles the same tropes of originality, newness, the hero-author, the tropes of avantgardism (as opposed to a genuine avant-grade, which is always surprising and unfamiliar), and the use of manifestos as tools of discourse. Much heat, little light.

if you have to have an ideology, or theory, before you can write a poem, so be it. Write a manifesto. Write something that requires theoretical interpretation. It will keep another generation of academic critics employed, if it does no more than that. I hear rumbles in the poetic landscape, lately, that indicate dissatisfaction with the current state of fractured affairs; but I don't see rumbles visionary enough to reunite an overarching aesthetic that will give poetry life again. Mostly I see a lot of puffy clouds that are the gunpowder spurts escaping the cannons of canon-making. This wisp here is yet another theoretical (theological) dead-end.

If you sincerely want to invent a new kind of poetry, which no one has seen before, set about doing that, but don't tell anyone about it. Don't announce your project before you set out. Truly uncharted waters do not need to be identified: Columbus thought he knew where he was going, and the genius of his discovery of the New World was that it was an accidental, unintended discovery. Far better to explore uncharted waters, even with a map that proves out to be wrong: one is far more likely to stumble upon something genuinely New. One is far more less likely to stumble upon anything new if one deliberately sets out to make Something New.

The ideology of originality, coupled with the theory of originality (which, make no mistake, is a Romantic theory), is more likely to arrive in waters already well-known. Real explorers aren't afraid of making mistakes. Real inventors aren't afraid of failure.

Labels: ,


Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

Dear Arthur,
I've read this through carefully and certainly liked it, yet never found that one little key that would unlock the mystery for me--your e-mail address!

After yesterday I'm on moderation again, so silenced. It has to be because of something I said to you because that is all I posted. Any ideas?

I can be reached at,


3:14 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

7. Yes, absolutely. I know I spend a long time on my blogs explaining my poetry but that is for the purpose of teaching. I do not intend to rip apart every poem I've written nor present extensive notes on them but occasionally I think it is good to explain. Once people get an idea of how I think then they'll think twice when they come across a poem-that-barely-looks-like-a-poem-of mine.

There are many theories of meaning. I just contributed a comment on a blog here you might find interesting, the blog not necessarily my comment. I do not think that any poem can be without meaning. It is something we are incapable of doing, not a) looking for meaning and/or b) imposing meaning on something.

I am not entirely opposed to theory before poetry. If we take a non-poetic example, serial music. Of course one can listen to Berg's Violin Concerto without knowing a damn thing about the Second Viennese School but knowing helps. And the same goes for someone like Cage. How can you listen to 4'33" without knowing what you're supposed to be doing? Well, yes you can but I expect it's a much more frustrating experience.

That said . . .

8. there's nothing wrong with being asked to experience a work of art free of any explanation either. It could be argued that the more you know beforehand the less open you will be to the experience. I think there are arguments for both; it depends on the piece.

9. Seriously, is there anything new to be invented? To my mind any 'new poetry' is just a subset of what already exists, a conscious restriction. That has been going on for years, people making up arbitrary rules and trying to fit a poem into them. That's being clever. And some poets are very clever. Matsuo Bashō was very clever. He obeyed the rules. But I bet there were days when he sat at his desk as thought, "Bugger! If I only had a couple more syllables then this one would really work." (Yes, I know they don’t use syllables, just work with me here.)

I consider my poetry unique. I've waited for years to find someone who write like me and I'm still waiting. Is it a 'new poetry'? Heck, if I know. I do have some broad rules that I work . . . not so much within as around. But I'm not standing on my soapbox telling people that this is how poetry should be written. A part of me would like to. Not that I have any desire to acquire a drove of disciples (not sure what the collective noun for disciples is, 'congregation' perhaps?) but I would like to run across more poetry that I actually enjoy because most of it I don't.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, those are interesting thoughts. There are indeed many theories of meaning, and I'm not convinced that they all mean anything. *rimshot* Sorry, it's impossible to pass up a straight line like that.

I agree with most of your thoughts here. Except I need to quibble about one point.

Basho didn't "obey the rules." In fact, he invented them, or developed them. And he also broke them with brilliance. But the "rules of haiku" as such where not something Basho formulated. That came later, with his disciples, and as formulated by later teachers of haiku. Basho wrote following certain personal tendencies, and certain means, and approaches. His dictum, which he told his students, was: "Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought." In fact, Basho broke the "syllabic count rule" several times, to good effect.

I think what makes your poetry (or mine) unique is what makes it new. It's not that you or I set out to be "original," it's that no-one before has had your particular viewpoint (or mine). We all have our own voices. Indeed, copying someone else's poetic voice, while a good way to learn how to write poems, in the end is a dead-end.

2:21 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home