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Travis Nichols

Travis Nichols

Posted: December 9, 2009 01:05 PM

'Infidel Poetics' and Magic Unicorns

What's Your Reaction:

The infidels are here to crush your pearls of wisdom.

Sorry.

This is especially bad news for readers who hope that the poets of the world know something special, and that poems exist to deliver the goods. This way of reading -- the way that tries to get something directly useful out of a poem--still works, of course, but only for a poem like Rudyard Kipling's "If--," and for readers like Rod Blagojevich.

If Blago didn't already know, or if he needed to hear it again in his time of trouble, it's clear after reading this Kipling chestnut that being steadfast in the face of adversity is admirable:


If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

Which is true! And that's why Blago quoted from this bit of Kipling during his ouster from office. I'm sure felt reassured by it. It was useful. But readers with this kind of expectation for a poem--the hope for the pearl--find most contemporary poetry to be one big fail. And you can't really blame them. It hasn't been delivering the goods for fifty years or so.

Really, what is Blago supposed to do with something like this?

April 22 is a nice day. I really like it.

I mean it's not as fantastic as that Hitler
unicorn ass but it's pretty special to me.
CREAMING bald eagle there is a tiny Abe
Lincoln boxing a tiny Hitler. MAGIC UNICORNS

This is no help for Blago in his time of trouble. It's Nada Gordon's poem "Unicorn Believers Don't Declare Fatwahs" from Poetry Magazine's Flarf and Conceptual Poetry sampler, and it is obscure.

People who talk about poetry have been talking about this kind of poem as a problem--if not the problem--of contemporary poetry for years. It's obscure. It's not accessible. It's no help. Which is why no one reads it. But what if--as Daniel Tiffany argues in his new book, Infidel Poetics--it's not a problem at all. What if this very obscurity is what makes poetry poetry?

Then, of course, Blago is in even more trouble than we thought, and poetry is in a golden age. The golden age of lyric obscurity.

According to Tiffany, lyric obscurity is not, as Kipling might have it, a failure to deliver a pearl of wisdom. Lyric obscurity presents a different kind of exchange, and one that could be incredibly valuable for readers if a) poets would stop pretending to be "clear" prose writers, and b) if readers would stop expecting pearls of wisdom and start entering into the sublime.

If this sounds a bit mystical and far-out, well, it is. "If you can hear," Amiri Baraka wrote about John Coltrane, "this music will make you think of a lot of weird and wonderful things. You might even become one of them."

The same is true for the lyric obscurity of Anselm Berrigan, Harryette Mullen, and Noelle Kocot. Beware! It might make you weird!

And here's the weirdo secret: lyric obscurity is not a failure to communicate. It is a thing in and of itself. And it is sublime when done well.

This does not hold, of course, if the poet is gussying up a simple thought or feeling in obscure language. That is not sublime. That is being a pretentious jerk.

Lyric obscurity done right uses its words and forms not because the poet is feeling fancy, but because no other words or forms will do to express what is going on. The feeling expressed in Gordon's "Unicorn Believers Don't Declare Fatwas" is different from Kipling's "If--," of course, so why would it be expressed in the same way? The Unicorn Feeling is complicated, and perhaps the very same striving for understanding the reader feels when confronted with the poem is part of the feeling expressed in the poem.

Full comprehension--like the name of God in certain Jewish traditions--is both impossible and the ultimate hope. The striving is what makes it sublime.