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Poetry: What Does It Accomplish?

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The Poetry Foundation

Here are two well-known descriptions of what a poem is, and does, one by Wordsworth, one by Stevens:

type a: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

type b: The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.

These two assertions, though not opposed, place distinctly different emphases on the function of poetry. The first description, Wordsworth's, suggests that poetry is a means of gaining perspective on primary experience: powerful emotions can be gathered, then dynamically relived, translated, and digested in the controlled laboratory of the poem--by proxy, such a poem also constructs perspective for the reader.

In contrast, Stevens's description implies that the poem and the reader engage in a sort of muscular struggle with each other--that struggle is how they become intimate, how they really "know" each other. Stevens suggests that a good poem, as part of its process, resists, twists, and enmeshes the reader (and perhaps the poet as well), an engagement in which perspective is challenged, and by no means guaranteed.

These two descriptions, of course, are not mutually exclusive, nor exhaustive on the subject of what poetry does. Even so, the two orientations emphasize two distinct value systems of poetry in a way that seems relevant to our contemporary poetic moment--two different kinds of poetic meaning: Perspective versus Entanglement; the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation.

What do we, as readers, want from a poem? On the one hand, plenty of poetry readers are alive and well who want to experience a kind of clarification; to feel and see deeply into the world that they inhabit, to make or read poetry that "helps you to live," that characterizes and clarifies human nature. To scoff at this motivation for poetry because it is "unsophisticated" or because it seems sentimental--well, you might as well scoff at oxygen.

Similarly, to dismiss the poetry of "dis-arrangement," the poetry that aims to disrupt or rearrange consciousness--to dismiss poems that attract (and abstract) by their resistance, thus drawing the reader into a condition of not-entirely-understanding--such a dismissal also seems to foreclose some powerful dimensions of poetry as an alternate language, a language expressive of certain things otherwise unreachable. Perhaps language as a study of itself has ends which are otherwise unforeseeable.

In our time, this bifurcation of motives among poets has become so pronounced as to be tribal. The polarization in premises has been further enhanced by a whole generation of poets who have been intellectually initiated into critical perspectives on language and meaning which render all forms of "recognition art" suspect, problematical--or, even worse, boring. Because the fit between the human mind, the actual world, and language is imperfect, is fraught with distortion, to manifest those distortions in poems has come to constitute a subject matter, even an idiomatic universe of its own, accompanied by a host of lyrical conventions and manners.

The poetry of perspective is well known in its essentials--it is an integral part of the history of rational humanism. This essay will focus on the relatively more recent poetry of "resistance," the poetry of derangement, and try to exemplify some of the contemporary options.

* * *

First, though, to give us some perspective, let us consider an anthem of perspective poetry from the mid century. George Oppen's "The Building of the Skyscraper," written in 1965, is a poem of type A, a perspective poem. Though abstract, Oppen writes in a famously plain style, and furnishes his statements with concrete examples. His poem is keenly attuned, in very contemporary ways, to the predicaments of modern dizziness:

The steel worker on the girder
Learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
Of vertigo.

There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
"To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out."

O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk--
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.

Oppen's austere, forceful poem is a beautiful summary of the existential conditions of the twentieth century. One feels the vertigo of dizzy technologic height, of "civilization," of accelerated change and profoundly transmuted circumstances. We have learned, says Oppen's speaker, to endure a great deal of speech that means little or nothing. We learn to screen out certain facts of the environment. We cling with intensity to our immediate environment, the historical present, because not to cling is to fall. But there is, nonetheless, Oppen asserts, something reliable that persists, and our example is the little life of a tree, growing on a sidewalk, into the "culture" of the street.

Oppen performs the role of tribal father here, reviewing our collective situation and placing emphases upon what he sees as crucial recognitions. So this plainspoken, plaintive, yet ambitious poem offers us a diagnosis, a point of view, and a place to stand, a context within which we might comprehend our feelings relative to our circumstances. Oppen offers no solution, but the reassurance of a lucid diagnosis. The receptive reader might feel the gratitude of a client in a doctor's office, upon hearing that his condition has a name. The speaker acknowledges the utility of our coping strategies--that we manage perception by blocking much out. And he also places into perspective the responsibility of the poet: not to avoid or deflect. On a metaphysical level, the speaker asserts that something exists beneath language--like bedrock beneath the skyscrapers, a sanity even beneath the dizziness.

It seems important to note that "The Building of the Skyscraper" does not wax nostalgic for the past--nor does it (exactly) reject the actuality of the present. Oppen's speaker is reportorial; he implies the precarious situation of the soul surrounded by the rapidity and degree of modern change. His is a metaphysics of compassionate realism.

To readers in 2010, it is the confidence of "The Building of the Skyscraper" which may be most striking, even enviable. That confidence illustrates how much the art of poetry has changed since 1965. Firstly, the speaker is confident about his authority to speak; he goes at his subject head-on. Secondly, the speaker is confident about the capacity of language to point with subtlety and discrimination, even when being implicit.

* * *

With contemporary poetry in mind, one could say that the what in Oppen's poem has remained the same; the how has changed. Judging from current magazines and books, vertigo ("a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height . . . giddiness") is the preeminent topic of contemporary poetry. It may be the dominant stylistic inclination as well. In the context of our time and place, this artistic focus--of speed and rapid (or no) transition--makes perfect sense. After all, our economic culture specializes in two things: surfeit and counterfeit. The lack of relative scale between the component parts of our existence, the swamp of excess information in which we each day swim, and our paradoxical lack of influence on that world--they make us ill. We have communication sickness. Add to that our drastically increased sense of the corruption of commercial and political speech, and the instability of language--surely our resulting collective dizziness is a fundamental symptom of modern life, one to which poems naturally refer.

But, like "I love you," there are so many ways to say "vertigo." A thousand kinds of vertiginous poetry are currently being written, from Ashbery to Volkman. Vertigo can be dramatized, ventriloquized, celebrated, satirized, elegiacally lamented or critiqued in poems. One poem might be a cry of claustrophobic distress; another might rejoice in the whirlwind of modern phenomena; a third might be intent on exposing the epistemological instability of language. And--here's the rub--the surfaces of those three poems may look very similar. Though easy enough to mimic--"the poem must resist the intelligence"--vertigo is a slippery project to handle in a dramatically effective way.

This is a good moment to say, straight out: Intention matters. Intention is a kind of attention, and the underlying attention of a poem (not necessarily singular, not necessarily preordained) is the agency which has discovered and calibrated its effects. When we read a disorienting poem, we ask ourselves, "What is the underlying expression for which this vertigo is an idiom?" By way of illustration, it might be said that the contemporary practioners of poetic vertigo can be temperamentally divided into two camps: negative or positive. One zone of poetics is planted in the ground of "antagonism to closed structures." The other group aims at the celebration of "imperfect meanings." The difference is not in the often similar surfaces, but in the spirit of the poems.

* * *

The most prevalent poetic representation of contemporary experience is the mimesis of disorientation by non sequitur. Just look into any new magazine. The most frequently employed poetic mode is the angular juxtaposition of dissonant data, dictions, and tones, without defining relations between them. The poem of non-parallelism--how things, perceptions, thoughts, and words coexist without connecting--is the red wheelbarrow of Now.

Here's a standard example of the mode, the beginning of "Elective Surgery," a poem by Lewis Warsh--declarative, non-transitioned, and irregular, an attention-deficit poem:

You think you can begin as if it were ten years ago & you were
still that person

A woman turns her head to catch a glimpse of her former lover

I offer you the key to a city without words

The guy on trial for rape wears glasses to make him look
studious

The policeman arrested a soldier for fondling a single parent

Sometimes I create an imaginary aisle in my mind: we're
walking down it, arm in arm, into the sunlight outside the
church

The woman who approached my car & asked for a light wasn't a
prostitute

You can escape your responsibilities by going to the movie or
getting drunk

Warsh's poetic mode, of which this is representative, might be described as softcore disassociation, gathering sticks and bundling them together in a kind of rickety, mismatched bouquet. What is the underlying tenor? Depending on a reader's aesthetic sympathies, the disorientation of such a poem might present a peacocky randomness, or serve as a loose psychological portrait of a morose yet randy speaker, or a satirical litany of contemporary data, suspended in poetic (and why not) form. Another reader might call it a tone poem. Although "Elective Surgery" doesn't have much dramatic tension or direction, it possesses a certain energetic savor which comes from the streetwise tone and the unpredictable zigs and zags of the sequence--Warsh's discontinuity has a certain personality.

A critic operating from type A, the perspective camp, would probably find this poem diffuse, indulgent, blurry, etc. "Elective Surgery" overflows, but it aims for no Wordsworthian integrative vision from its tranquility. Because the frame insistently slides around, neither a narrative nor a thematic "picture" comes into focus.

A reader of type B persuasion (the "indeterminacy" camp) might find the poem charming in its dodgy ambling, its refusal to settle into one field of vision. You could say that Warsh--in a modestly postmodern way--evades focus, thus embodying a contemporary disorientation. It is in this latter sense that I offer up Warsh's poetics, as an emblem of a contemporary manner of poetic pleasure, whose wobbling pivot engages and resists the intelligence of the reader.

* * *

In the work of some poets, the poetics of vertigo is employed to represent the modern environment--the maelstrom of information, of public data, of 24/7 information overload; the omnipresence of media manipulation. For another contemporary poetic "engagement" with such cultural forces we might turn to poems by Ben Lerner, whose book Angle of Yaw is a collection of political, cunning, crafty prose poems like the following:

the aircraft rotates about its longitudinal axis, shifting the equinoxes slowly west. Our system of measure is anchored by the apparent daily motion of stars that no longer exist. When the reader comes to, the writer hits him again. Just in case God isn't dead, our astronauts carry sidearms. This is not your captain speaking, thinks the captain. A magnetic field reversal turns our fire friendly. Fleeing populations leave their bread unleavened, their lines unbroken.

"The aircraft rotates" creates disequilibrium by constantly jumping its track, using declarative non-sequitur assertions to disrupt continuity of discourse and disorient the reader. Its speed and its use of ventriloquized, dislocated but familiar speech samples (rhetorical collage) invoke the surfeit of information in modern life, the impersonal, bossy chill of bureaucratic speech, and the uncertainty, in this maelstrom, of locating any fixed perspective. All is relative: much knowledge is received and unreliable; there is no captain, and even language itself, like the term "friendly fire," is duplicitous. It is a rhetorically disastrous landscape, in which all the old paradigms are awry. And our narrator? Clever and knowing, but not friendly. "When the reader comes to, the writer hits him again." In their way, Lerner's poems represent a state of trauma, a world of too-muchness, where nothing connects.

Lerner is a poet of political inclinations, though not a believer in rational persuasion, nor in intimate conversation. Rather, Lerner's poems seem anarchistic, almost Dionysian-- they manifest the centrifugal whirlwind of modernity from inside. One could say that the speaker is channeling the collective psychosis, splicing and dicing a slew of rhetorics. The most striking and "resistant" thing about "The aircraft rotates" may be its enigmatic point of view. The omniscient narrator speaks from an undisclosed position, in a tone hard to "read"--is it bitter, amused, helpless, sarcastic? In its manner, Lerner's poems fit the description of "elliptical" poetry offered by critic Stephen Burt: "always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities . . . but they suspect the Is they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation." Elliptical or not, "The aircraft rotates" denies the reader clear purchase for innerness; the declarative rhetoric of the poem creates a carapace of attitude. And, since sentences arrive in such fierce non-sequitur rapidity, we don't know if the speaker is reporting this frothy modern thrashing of comprehension, or administering it, like some savage jester. Such is the enigmatic stance of the poems. These poems capture some essentials of modern experience, but they intentionally offer no harbor for the traveler, neither consolation nor explanation. It's a prosody of, and about, violence. "It is time for the destruction of error," said Auden, and the instinct of the demolitionist is strong in Angle of Yaw. Here's another poem from that book:

a wall is torn down to expand the room and we grow distant. At the reception, cookies left over from the intervention. In the era before the flood, you could speak in the second person. Now the skylighted forecourt is filled with plainclothesmen. I would like to draw your attention. Like a pistol? In the sense of a sketch? Both, she said, emphasizing nothing, if not emphasis. Squint, and the room dissolves into manageable triangles. Close your eyes completely and it reappears.

Lerner is clever, worldly, and resourceful, but his poetic mode of quick-changes tends to come off as overwhelmingly ironic or antagonistic. His topic isn't just the untrustworthiness of perception and perspective itself, but the oppressiveness of the maelstrom. Plainclothesmen, a flood, an intervention: it's not event or narrative that is missing; it's the lack of any centralizing emphasis, or rather the emphasis of nothing--which, to be fair, the poem self-describes--which makes reading the poem the equivalent of a labyrinth, hollow and circular. It is a poetry both confrontational and evasive. Lerner's relentless focus on the contextless "yaw and angle" of contemporary consciousness--how we know, how we represent, the systems we are subject to--phenomenology, epistemology--are representative preoccupations of his generation. If the Plath generation was obsessed with psychological extremity, and the eighties generation with narratives of self, the generation of the oughts has been obsessed with exposing the fallibilities of perspective. But what comes after?

* * *

Rusty Morrison's "please advise stop" poems (there are sixty-four in her book the true keeps calm biding its story) also practice the stylistics of vertigo--each poem is a semi-fragmentary, declarative sequence of phrases, set against a murky but discernibly oppressive narrative background--unlike Lerner's poems, Morrison's overall tone is not knowledgeable irony, but wary pathos; this narrator is a pilgrim in a strange world, a vulnerable if never-identified speaker:

walked barefoot in the spill of loamy earth between redwoods stop
accompanied by no sermon stop
my repetitive gesture will eventually wear through its surrounding
world please

I heard a drawer pull open but not its philosophies rearing up in
jagged peaks stop
how to walk off the hackles we raise so carelessly stop
how does a sequence continue to startle its way through clouds of
conclusions please

wash one's face of any resemblances before they mingle stop
I don't see color in the window at moonrise but feel it a dampness
on my forehead stop
tattooed both wrists with the holy idea but only skin deep please advise

Implicitly, the halting disjointedness stands for the psychological disruption of inner life. Yet it seems the speaker's traumatized state of being is not a psychological (this isn't an abuse narrative) but a metaphysical sense of endangerment. Thus, though emotionally plaintive, Morrison's poems include plenty of intriguing conceptual assertions on the subject of cognition itself. In this way Morrison and Lerner are different--the one aggressive and socially satirical; the other bereft and distinctly private in emotional register. But, like Lerner, Morrison combines a forceful thrusting style with a disjunctive form to represent a system in extreme disorder.

Morrison's poems combine sophisticated self-consciousness with stylistic primitivity--one of contemporary poetry's most appealing hybrid combinations (C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell), which, at its best, makes for a potent representation of interior vertigo. In fact, Morrison's fluttering, anxious prosody resembles Graham's darting graphs of consciousness.

For all their disarticulation, Morrison's poems employ an elaborate formal fiction. "please advise stop" is one of fifty-four poems with the same title and three-tercet form. The end words of every three-line stanza are the same: please, stop, please advise--words meant to evoke not just the speaker's emotional condition, but the clipped grammatical form in which Western Union telegrams were once sent.

The framing conceit of this compressed, invented form is richly suggestive: a nameless traveler in a far-off land, in distress, is reporting back, and asks for advice through a narrow technological aperture (the telegraph-sentence). Vertigo is both the story and the style of these poems. By issuing each line as a broken-off, truncated unit, shunning continuity and complex grammatical relations, the poems imply a world where things do not accrue sense, nor progress as story. It is a choppy, chopped-up world, at best, and a chopped-up speaker, as well. The lack of capitalization and punctuation likewise sets us adrift, implying a landscape of no boundaries:

the road to the asylum forks each time I genuflect please
the entire morning gone callow with a rationale stop
now even the least leaf rustling must be theatricalized please advise

The poems in the true keeps calm biding its story are full of velocity, often keenly phrased, and conceptually acute. There are scores of intriguing, aphoristic lines to savor, like those above. And Morrison's poems are in concert with modern perspectives on the instability of meaning, knowing, and saying. The conceptual self-consciousness of lines like those above alerts us to the epistemological dimension of the speaker's crisis. Many lines in the "please advise stop" poems explicitly emphasize the futility--and, in a weird way, the falsehood--of making experience cohere. The content of any one moment does not--perhaps must not--connect to any other in the past or future: ("wash one's face of any resemblances before they mingle"). Thus, the speaker is exiled in manifold ways: physically, religiously, and hermeneutically. This world is post-Humpty Dumpty: the speaker cannot put it together again.

To their credit, the poems are not emotionally obscure--they wear their existential poignancy on their sleeve. With an appealing frailty, this traveler's voice is self-conscious yet vulnerable, a representation of the anxiety of the contemporary soul/self. In manner and matter, this is a poetry of ardent trauma:

I add brush-strokes to my visions to thicken their surface courage stop
novelty prodding me with its impatience-stick stop
my flashlight held high under the blanket stop

we can't let the actual contain us the same way every time stop
the sound of a rolling boil is satisfying and frightening stop
it's the past that's finishing every sentence for me please

between the sigh and the laugh was it a genuine repair or a quick
dab of polish stop
the low ceiling was uncoiling at the exact speed I recoiled from it stop
grant the visible its pronouns and watch it disappear please advise

The true keeps calm biding its story contains plentiful virtuosity. Nonetheless, after reading nine or ten "please advise stop[s]," one begins to feel worn out. It takes a lot of work to stay tuned to a present that steadily deconstructs itself, that refuses to make a history. And no discourse does accumulate, because in this universe, each moment, each insight, each breath, each memory is transient, anonymous, and oblique; each insight reiterates its instability. The reader waits in vain for something besides the speaker's disconcertedness to manifest--more "plot" of some kind. "We can't let the actual contain us the same way every time," the poet says, in heroic resistance to phenomonological complacency. But the sequence itself suffers from exactly this flaw, a kind of homogeneity of disruptedness. The instability of this world eventually registers as a feverish and telegrammatic numbness. Samuel Beckett made great literature of such modern spiritual deprivation, and he too used repetition as a device. Yet fifty-four episodes of "please advise stop" leave us with the question, Should we praise a book for its intriguing concept and method, or even its brilliant individual lines, if the method creates monotony?

Of course, this is an issue--not much acknowledged--that haunts much experimental poetry: the use of disrupted poetic forms results in a style but resists shape. Thus the individual poems very often lack individual dramatic identity. They may be remarkable or ingenious in their process, but unremarkable in their shapeliness--in turn, such poems are difficult to remember. How this affects their value as art is hard to say.

* * *

One might extrapolate from these several examples the features of a period style. Here are the characteristics I observe:

1. A heavy reliance on authoritative declaration.
2. A love of the fragmentary, the interrupted, the choppy rhythm.
3. An overall preference for the conceptual over the corporeal, the sensual, the emotional, the narrative, or the discursive.
4. A talent for aphorism.
5. Asides which articulate the poem's own aesthetic procedures, premises, and ideas.

Surely I am over-generalizing and omitting some things. But it is curious how much contemporary poetry bears some combination of these stylistic features, even when the poets are concerned with quite different possibilities of poetry. Morrison and Lerner are certainly very different, and both marvelously talented poets. And yet there is a kind of pitching-machine assault in their prosody, a buffeting of dizzy richness. Is this assertiveness of quantity and momentum a kind of correction for the general helplessness of our circumstances? Is it reflective of a new aesthetics of "confrontation," which strives to overwhelm with velocity and facility? One question we can usefully ask in regard to a particular style or poem is, What is the range of feeling or sensibility in this poetry? Is it narrow or broad? Is it merely whimsical, merely disjunct, merely antagonistic, or can it also be friendly, entertaining, deep, and spacious?

* * *

One American poet who has been trafficking in disorientation for a long time is James Tate. Tate has passed through a dozen phases in his career to date, but is probably most frequently labeled as a bonnie prince of whimsical American surrealism. His work of late has been in prose poems, in which his picaresque speaker or characters are spinning through life, inquisitive and clueless as Candide, trying to identify and get with the fiction of whatever world they are in. Here is the opening of "The Rules":

Jack told me to never reveal my true identity. "I would never do that," I said. "Always wear at least a partial disguise," he said. "Of course," I said. "And try to blend in with the crowd," he said. "Naturally," I said. "And never fall in love," he said. "Far too dangerous," I said. "Never raise your voice," he said. "Understood," I said. "Never run," he said. "I wouldn't dream of it," I said. "Never make a glutton of yourself," he said. "It won't happen," I said. "Always be polite," he said. "That's me, polite," I said. "Don't sing in public," he said. "You have my promise," I said. "Don't touch strangers," he said. "That's forbidden," I said. "Never speed," he said. "You can count on me," I said.

Here is a vertigo that accumulates. As Tate's poem goes on, it capitalizes on its own excess, and its tale simultaneously becomes more dreadful. In the past, Tate's subject matter has been the illogic and haplessness of private psychic life. But in Ghost Soldiers, his narratives suddenly seem social and political--more about our collective disorientation and estrangement as citizens than about the eccentricity of an individual speaker. In "The Rules," the universe seems to be a kind of bizarre police state; the subject of the poem becomes the innumerable unspoken rules which bind us, our tragic willingness to cooperate, and the consequent foreclosure of wonder.
Tate's effectiveness makes an argument for the poetic power of context. His narrative frame may be slight, but it offers the reader a place to stand and the opportunity for identification. When we read a poem like "The Rules," we see modern vertigo rendered in manners as absurd and forceful as those of "The aircraft rotates" or "please advise stop," but more directly and more movingly. These vertiginous poems share much in subject matter but have very different timbres.

As "The Rules" are enumerated, one after another, we are able to relish the shifts in implication between, for example, the command to "Never ride on a blimp" (absurd) and "Don't touch strangers" (poignant). Tate's poem of disconnecting provokes pity, recognition, and laughter. Here is the end of Tate's vertiginous two-page poem:

"No sushi," he said. "Oh no," I said. "No fandango," he said. "Not possible," I said. "No farm bureau," he said. "Not my style," I said. "Beware of hypnotism," he said. "Always alert," I said. "Watch out for leeches," he said. "A danger not forgotten," I said. "Stay off gondolas." "Instinctively," I said. "Never trust a fortune-teller," he said. "Never," I said. "Avoid crusades," he said. "Certainly," I said. "Never ride on a blimp," he said. "Blimps are out," I said. "Do not chase turkeys," he said. "I will not," I said. "Do not put your hand in the mouth of a horse," he said. "Out of the question," I said. "Never believe in miracles," he said. "I won't," I said.

This sobering conclusion feels heartfelt, deflating, and true, in part because it has been formally prepared for. As a longtime reader of Tate, I feel that his genius has reinvented itself once again, this time as an allegorist and satirist, an American Kafka. ("The Rules" is a cartoon version of The Trial.) The Ghost Soldiers is a fat book, containing nearly one hundred poems; not all of them are political. But Tate's picaresque imagination has an unerring knowledge of, and tenderness for, human fallibility; at the same time his recognitions about the pathos of modern life, as borne by idiom, manners, and tone, are pitch-perfect. In the mode of fantasist parable, there's no better representation than these poems of what it is to be in the middle of America now. Psychological eccentricity is no longer the topic of Tate's narrative melodies, but collective tragedy:

I asked Jasper if he had any ideas about the coming revolution. "I didn't know there was a revolution coming," he said. "Well, people are pretty disgusted. There might be," I said. "I wish you wouldn't just make things up. You're always trying to fool with me," he said. "There are soldiers everywhere. It's hard to tell which side they're on," I said. "They're against us. Everyone's against us. Isn't that what you believe?" he said. "Not everyone. There are a few misguided stragglers who still believe in something or other," I said. "Well, that gives me heart," he said. "Never give up the faith," I said. "Who said I ever had any?" he said. "Shame on you, Jasper. It's important to believe in the cause," I said. "The cause of you digging us deeper into a hole?" he said. "No, the cause of the people standing together for their rights, freedom and all," I said. "Well, that's long gone. We have no rights," he said. We fell silent for the next few minutes. I was staring out the window at a rabbit in the yard. Finally, I said, "I was just saying all that to amuse you." "So was I," he said. "Do you believe in God?" I said. "God's in prison," he said. "What'd he do?" I said. "Everything," he said.
--"Desperate Talk"

What is more tragic, and in this case, less true, than the speaker's disclaimer: "I was just saying all that to amuse you"? At the end of "Desperate Talk," we feel the absurdity and pathos of human ignorance, and the echoing vacancy of the social landscape. Even so, we are able to breathe inside Tate's poem, and to sense the development of dimensions, sympathies, shades, and transformation, because we are given the gift of context. With the asset of that third dimension, a narrative frame, the poem makes room for the reader, and gives the reader a chance to respond.

* * *

Lyn Hejinian, present at the birth of the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e movement, is one of the most venerable experimentalists writing, and still one of the freshest. Inventive and discursive, quirky and non-linear, she is warmer and more humane than Ashbery, and, for me, more satisfying to read, because she is less intentionally vacant (empty-headedness, about half the time, is a strategy for Ashbery). Alternately dipping into the textual and the experiential, sometimes straightforward and sometimes wildly errant, her work doesn't want for speculative intelligence of many kinds--but in Hejinian's writing, one feels the attachment of the speaker. Though she is dead-set against predictability, her method doesn't feel like a lunge for novelty, or an obedience to an ethic of deconstruction, but like a comfortable, well-worn style of dress. As a consequence, in a Hejinian poem, ideas are shaded and fleshed by experience, and vice versa. Her work is simply more three-dimensional than most poems, conventional or experimental:

It is January 7 or perhaps it's a thank you note. "Our moods do not believe
in each other," as Emerson says. Instead
of creating realities art gives us illusions
of illusions--so says Plato and for Plato
little could be worse. Would you agree
with Plato? B wants to liberate phrases
from the structural confines and coercive syntax of sentences
and so does C but C is in France. A sense of the uniqueness
and interrelatedness of things is fundamental here. It would be hard
to go farther
than a mile from home for groceries and the fun of it
without noticing the canyon's rosy mouth
which is very like the one in Zane Grey's randy landscape.
--From The Fatalist

Hejinian deals in the same contemporary verities as the other poets considered here--unknowability and transience, the illusory nature of selfhood, the limits and instabilities of language--and like them she is quirky and playful, deliberately irregular in her progressions. But Hejinian handles her material in a quasi-discursive, quasi-autobiographical manner, comforting for its intimacy and intermittent physicality. "B wants to liberate phrases / from the structural confines and coercive syntax of sentences and so / does C but C is in France." It's the worldly acknowledgement of that last but that makes Hejinian lovably worldly.

The relationship of the vertiginous to flatness in poetry makes an interesting sidebar--l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets like Clark Coolidge and Charles Bernstein have sometimes insisted on the flatness of their text as a purist principle, as a kind of ascetic prohibition of illusion. The Fatalist, though at times intentionally choppy, is nonetheless stubbornly three-dimensional. With her pedigree in deconstruction, Hejinian naturally accounts for language as material, and fractures the rules of predictability in syntax and sentence. Yet in mapping the human condition, all concepts are not created equal. This poet does not balk at sincerely asserting some hierarchies: "A sense of the uniqueness / and interrelatedness of things is fundamental here." The passages of The Fatalist are weighted with various dimensions and tones: the sensuous gratifications of nature, the history of other persons' sayings. The effect is to keep us on our toes, and, at the same time, to keep us company. At times I feel that Hejinian, in her generous claims about the spaciousness of human nature, has become the unlikely Wordsworth of her tribe:

Time is filled with beginners. You are right. Now
each of them is working on something
and it matters. The large increments of life must not go by
unrecognized. That's why my mother's own mother-in-law
was often bawdy. "meatballs!" she would shout
superbly anticipating site-specific specificity in the future
of poetry. Will this work? The long moment is addressed
to the material world's "systems and embodiments" for study
for sentience and for history. Materiality, after all, is about being
a geologist or biologist, bread dough rising
while four boys on skateboards attempt to fly

Hejinian practices a method she calls "free concentration," which tracks the changing presence of consciousness like rings sliding past on the surface of a river. Elements of randomness and deconstruction are part of the flow, as well as passages of considerable continuity. Thus The Fatalist--as a non-beginning-middle-end kind of project, is not notable for its dramatic arc. It is written in episode-like paragraphs, which might be described as the journal entries of a playful intellectual. Whimsical, intermittently serious, the density changes, and, admittedly, might be hard to stay with in a cumulative way. And this seems true in general--the experimental poet, almost by principle, chooses improvisation over accumulative dramatic shape.

I suppose that may be part of the "fatalist's" message--process, not product; pulling it all together is not the point, no more than pulling it all apart. But even though I may not be "getting anywhere," Hejinian rewards me with the contact of a rich, generous, and experienced sensibility. As a reader I feel the united, collaborative commitment of intellect and feelings, idea and material, and the author's ongoing, affectionate meditation about consciousness and its connection to human life. As a result, there are plenty of passages in The Fatalist which make me happier in the reading--partly because of their diffidence--than most other recent poetry. Maybe this is esoteric stuff, poetry for the initiated, full of loose ends. But The Fatalist also teaches one how to read it. One of its pleasures is the adventure of syntax; Hejinian believes in having fun with the sentence, not just making war on (or with) it:

Feeling the slowness of the wide world fleetingly I'll speak
to the points that make me hesitant to be
enthusiastic constantly but bearing in mind that translators often say obvious things smugly
sure that they know what their audience doesn't, namely another language
that has let them in on a secret--and it is so often French!
The deadline for "dialogue" comes and is gone.

What I like about Hejinian's vertigo is that there is a constant changing of pace, there are eddies and resting places, alternations in color, mood, and, may I say, "landscape"?--which embed the poetry in the human milieu. Hejinian, like other poets discussed here, is declarative and non-sequitur; she doesn't want the reader to be complacent, but even so, one doesn't feel baited or battered or shown off to. Hejinian's intention is to be a singer-thinker, to implement a way of writing not confined to one plane of reference. One feels in The Fatalist the fluency of a lifetime of thinking and practice, and a dexterity in improvisation that doesn't have to be forced or rehearsed any longer. Hejinian's poetry achieves an imaginative balance between the poetry of perspective and the poetry of disorientation, and it also honors the role of both in human life. Perhaps even more important is the way that Hejinian has learned to use her technique not to map in the Wordsworthian sense, but to exemplify the spaciousness of the world--verbal, conceptual, perceptual.

None of the poets discussed here is Wordsworthian, recollecting in tranquility, restoring order to the dizzy modern condition. None aims to soothe the self-justifying mind. Yet, in the words of Oppen's poem, "The Building of the Skyscraper," Hejinian knows that "there is something to mean." She studiously doesn't want to box such meanings in or to "conclude" them; nor, on the other hand, does she provoke additional anxiety that the sky is falling. "It is the business of the poet / 'To suffer the things of the world / And to speak them and himself out.'" In its passionate, compassionate worldliness, The Fatalist offers the presence of a reassuring adult, who has been around the non-Newtonian block. Even if we are falling, we can feel fortunate that we have some human company in the descent. Ah, poetry.

Read the whole story at Poetry Magazine

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