The Non-Primacy of Words
I was browsing a used book store earlier, and came across a thick volume of experimental language-based poetry. I scanned it, contemplated buying it to take home to look over more closely, then put it back. I realized I didn't need to take it home. I had scanned several pages, and they were full of the sort of "experimental" (let's get real, it isn't really new any more) language-based poetry. The author was clearly in love with the pure sounds of words, often writing sequential phrases that were like musical variations around a single set of sounds. The poems led nowhere in terms of meaning anything, they were just pure sensual pleasure in the sounds alone, and their arrangement on the page.
It had also clearly been influenced by ideas from notated music: as John Cage had done in several of his lecture texts to be read out loud, the spacing on the page indicated time. Assuming the eye moves across the page at a steady rate, the gaps in between words are equivalent to rests in music: notated silences between words, phrases, sounds.
It was pretty good stuff as far as it goes, a fairly musical example of its ilk. Yet the fact that only a few hours later I can remember neither the name of the book or the name of its author is telling.
Scanning this book of language-based poems led to another realization, then. A realization about how some writers approach their art. A realization that went a long way towards helping me integrate some conflicts and ideas within contemporary poetry.The realization was clear and simple. I'm sure some writer somewhere will respond with a "Well, duh!"
What I realized was that there is a whole gaggle of writers for whom words are sensual things in themselves. For whom the image of type on the page, and the sound that notates, are the only important thing, the only real thing.
I've encountered numerous writers, especially poets, who proclaim their love for words, as if words were actual, sensual things. Writers who say that their pleasure lies in "fooling with words," the pleasure of the language, the sensual aspect of using language to make art.
Love of language, which after all is the tool of poetry, is common to many poets, many of whom work in diverse styles and with diverse intent. I've heard writers say fairly often that they are compelled to writer. One useful definition of a writer is someone whose first artistic response to life and events is to write about them. (By this criteria I cannot always be called a writer.) Another definition of a writer is someone who is enamored of language to the extent that they constantly work with it: a writer writes. (I can be called a writer by this criterion, on some days.)
Yet there's a limitation here, if only a conceptual one. Some of these same writers, especially those who describe their first response to life as that of writing, have artistic tunnel vision. It's the same presumption many artisans and craftsmen fall into: the assumption that the way they perceive the world, and respond, is the way everyone else does, too. Of course, this isn't limited to writers: many people in many fields are unable to think outside their own boxes.
Some writers describe words as the primary components of existence: the world is made of words. Beyond the sheer anthropocentricity of such a notion—does a stooping hawk think in words about its prey?—there's the question of which words, which language, in what way exactly do words make up the world. It's even been argued, vainly and narrowly, that writing is the highest form of art, because of the primacy of language as the essential human way of responding to life.
Essential? Primacy? Not if you ask painters or dancers; usually only if you ask writers, or poets.
And then there was the musical aspect of this book of language-based poetry. Often poetry criticism relies on ideas and words from music—which seems odd: if words are indeed primary, why do you have to use analogies from (wordless) music to make your point? While I did find the sonic and musical aspects of this book pleasant on the ear, it didn't really seem to go anywhere. Individual phrases and word-plays for the sake of sound are pleasant, but so is the sound of water striking weathered stones as it falls into a pool. Pure sound can be musical, certainly. Pure words can be perceived as pure sounds—I'm not unsympathetic to that, or to the aesthetic experience that can result from it. Yet at what point does using words as pure sounds cross over the threshold from being signal, into being noise? (Noise defined as lack of signal; signal being defined as something you can connect to, in any given aesthetic experience.)
The poet Muriel Rukeyser is sometimes cited by the language-oriented poets as justification for what they attempt, in her comment: The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. This is used as justification for all sorts of "experiments" with language in poems. Ignore for the moment that Rukeyser said "stories," not "words"—that she might not agree with their usage of her comment. In fact, Rukeyser says elsewhere, in her book of essays, The Life of Poetry:
A poem is not its images any more than a symphony is its themes.
A poem is not its words any more than a symphony is its notes.
The image, the word, the note—those are methods by which the imaginative experience is presented and received.
Words, image, musical note: the tools of the trade, the atoms that carry the experience. But the tools are how the imaginative or aesthetic experience is conveyed, and how it is received. A definition of poetry that works for most camps and styles of poetry is, Poetry uses words to recreate an experience in the audience. Music uses notes as the means to do the same. Dance uses movement. Architecture uses form, color, shape, and open space. And so on.
Poet Naomi Goldenberg writes: In the beginning was definitely not the Word. . . . It is flesh that makes the words. (The stooping hawk is flesh that needs no words.) During my recovery from surgery this past summer, I wrote and made art about the experience. One theme from these surgery diaries was about body knowing. That entire experience has taught me to listen deeper to my body's needs, and to listen to communications that do not come via words. I am already discovering a narrative of death-and-rebirth, and the renewal of life, arising from this experience, and I am making art about it.
The book of language-oriented poetry, as I browsed several pages, revealed no narrative, no story, no sense of imagery. Like much language-based poetry it was words for their own sake and no other. The words were clearly carefully presented, obviously carefully crafted. Time and energy had been spent on this; it was a thick book, so perhaps it had been the compilation of years of effort. What was the imaginative experience I was supposed to receive? If it was just to bathe in the sensuality of words, it seemed a tepid and shallow bath.
For me as a reader, none of it stuck. Unless there were puzzle-box meanings I was supposed to ferret out, as a reader, and find lurking behind the surface of the language, I found nothing to relate to, nothing to hang onto, nothing but surface effects. Unless, of course, the whole purpose was to skate pinwheels on the surface of the lake of language.
If all you care about with words is their presentation, their sounds, their thingness, you may be able to pull it off musically, but at what point does this become music rather than poetry? Coming from the composer's direction, using musics purely as sounds within a performance art or text-sound-poetry piece is quite legitimate. I've written (and recorded) a number of such pieces myself. But in the end it's music, not poetry: it's made up of words, as language and poetry are made up of words, but the words are textural: they can have meaning individual meaning, but they are tapestries of density and shape: sculpted sounds on the ear. As a composer first and a poet third, I tend to perceive this work as musical rather than poetic.
A lot of poetry criticism tries to evoke musicality in poetry, often finding ground on purely technical matters. Criticism often borrows words from music theory, occasionally to surreal effect. And this is where the argument that poetry is the highest artform of all, because it is so abstract, falls flat on its face: because, even though words are abstracted symbols that represent experience, other artforms—specifically nonverbal artforms—there are more abstract artforms, including dance, instrumental music, and so forth.
Those who love words are their primary medium tend to always want to talk about or describe music, dance, and painting—all of which are valid occupations in themselves—as though no art is real until it's verbalized. Those who believe in the primacy of words are always talking. In truth, some never know when to shut up.
It's perfectly valid to filter all of your life experience through words (talking mostly to yourself), which is what many writers do. But they need to remember two things: not everyone perceives or responds to life the same way they do; and in fact, sometimes, those places where words fail utterly (for example, at the side of the bed where a loved one has just died), are deeper and more profound experiences than words can contain. Words fail at the sight of the ineffable and the mysterious.
On the other hand, there is another breed of poet for whom poetry really isn't anything different than prose. They may break their poems into lines, they may use slant-rhymes or off-rhymes or meter, but rarely obviously. They always write full grammatical prose sentences, then break those sentences up on the page. Often in this kind of poetry the line-breaks seem quite arbitrary. It can be a bit of a puzzle as to why they chose to break the line where they did. Often they seem like lined prose-poems. As what few readers I have know well, I have no problem with prose-poems, and write them often myself. What I do have a problem with is arbitrary line-breaks for no apparent reason. Any reason will do, as long as there is one.
Of course, now that poetry apps are starting to proliferate, maybe this is all moot. However you define yourself as a poet, and how you define "writing," one of the solid truths of the vaporous present moment in the arts is that everything is up for grabs, nothing is as certain as it was, and all the old maps have blank gaps in them, often making them useless. It may well be that the assistance of technology is going to permanently change the way we all interact, and make, art. Which actually I'm already doing, as a writer, composer, and artist. Just don't make the usual mistake of proclaiming the death of old media when the new media emerges: actual physical solid books will not disappear just because e-readers are now available. If anything, it makes the solid book more precious, both as a collectable object, and as an artform in itself. Yes, you heard it here first: making books is actually an artform.