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A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.



I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.

It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.

I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.

I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.

I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.

I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.

I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.

“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”

“Wait, what?”

“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”

“I don’t understand.”

“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”

This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.

“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.

“Like ‘and,’” she said, “or ‘but.’”

“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”



“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”

The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?

This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.

But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.

I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.

Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.

I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.

I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.

It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.

What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.

Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.

For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:

“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

Something to behold.

Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.

He said to her.

Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.

Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.

He said: The sky was this pink … ”

Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:

“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”

Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.

Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.

A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.

One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.

I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.

For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.

Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.

Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.

Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.

Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:

But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar

The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.

Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like

when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)

A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.

It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”

I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)

and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:

nobody waits
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?

“Howl” by Gene Tanta

In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.

“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta

I am excited about the prospect of teaching a course in which students will be given an opportunity to dismantle certain suppositions, while at the same time studying the mechanisms of dismantling which we call literary movements, and literary greatness. First, what is a gatekeeper? What gate does he keep? And what is the literary greatness he upholds? What verbal strategies and “values” are employed to maintain a standard or rebel against a standard? Is there any real difference between the strategies of obeying a structure or dismantling it? If there is no standard, and anything is great if you say it is, then why do certain works persist? Does this mean they are truly great, or that the argument for their greatness, the strategies and rigor of those arguments, or the simple fact that one feels compelled to continue the argument make them so? What are the advantages of upholding a tradition and the advantages of dismantling it, if any, beyond power? And, if power is the only constant of both those who would reform and those who resist being reformed, then is there any movement at all–or just new and seemingly competing terminologies for the same basic thing?

We will be examining through both a historical and theoretical approach, a couple of simple adages and quotes, the simplest of which is: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We will add to this adage, a couple of insane variants:

The more things same, the more they same the change.

Things change by staying the same.

Things stay the same by changing.

If change equals sameness and Sameness equals change, where in this process of the constancy of change, and the inconstancy of sameness do terminologies emphasize their rigorous nomenclatures of change or their equally rigorous nomenclatures of sameness? How does the atrophy of one lead to the hypertrophy of the other? What are the common mechanisms and verbal strategies of sameness and change in any verbal aesthetic? In what sense is the break down of any system A.) Breakthrough? B.) Proof that the system exists? C.) Prove that it never existed? D.) Proof that it may or may not exist and is to be considered only in so far as it exists as a series of assertions and all terminologies in the verbal construct gather around it to prove or disprove its “validity?”

What do we mean by cultural evolution? If we can come up with a definition for evolution, does the definition cease to be challenged effectively? And if it ceases to evolve, does it, itself, contradict cultural evolution? And if it contradicts cultural evolution, doesn’t that prove evolution by way of evolving beyond it? Can we ever escape the mechanisms and strategies by which we assert that we are beyond the mechanisms and strategies of assertion? Why do we put flesh on the mechanisms of the bones and organs. What is the value not only of methodology, but of hiding one’s methodologies behind a terministic screen? How do literary terms resemble the veil over the covenant. And when we hide anything by a vocabulary of jargon, exclusion, or discourse, do the gatekeepers mistake mastery of the jargon for the value? Do people ever really value truth, or do they value the power that comes from mastering certain mechanisms of truth? To that end:

“Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
~Jacques Derrida

All selections from reality/life are distortions of reality/life. They imply a rhetoric (method) of inclusion and exclusion implicit in the choosing of one thing or way over another. Thus Kafka’s statement: “the minute you write she opened a window, you have already begun to lie.” What can we say about correctness then, the right or perfect way to do something save that it is obeys to the furthest rigor and skill the rhetoric of its own distortions, and, when it disobeys the rhetoric of those particular distortions, it does so with equal or greater rigor? Error exists not in whether something is true or false but in whether one has obeyed its rhetoric (methodology) or disobeyed without full rigor. There can be no errors in perception if all perception is misperception,only errors in methodology. If one attempt to obey and fails, this is sin/error, or incompetence. If one disobeys and succeeds with full rigor, this is a new system. If all this be so, then there is no difference between postmodernism’s obsessions with deconstruction (the process of instability) and the bureaucracy from which it came into being and in which it thrives. To quote Derrida again:

“It is the rigor and conviction of my views and methods that seem threatening– not what I say, but the rigor, conviction, and competence by which I say it.”

What is the outline of methodology in Ashery’s poems? (we will look at three of them). IN Larry Levis (again three poems). In Keats’ “Odes?” in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of ORder at KEy West,” “Large Red Man Reading” and in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s family and identity poems? How do these methodologies contradict or exclude the possibility of the other?

Besides this old adage, we will be considering the following:

To what extent is art for art’s sake, in its purest most absolute expression, merely a morality and didacticism made conspicuous by its absence? (We will compare the verbal strategy of Oscar Wilde’s essays on art for art’s sake, with some famous sermons and their verbal strategies)). How does an aesthete resemble a strict moralist? What are the verbal strategies of disdain an aesthete employs for the meaningful and the ontological, and how do they resemble the “outrage” of moralists? How does the “cool” and indifference, and practiced inconsequence of an aesthete betray the same underlying violence and zeal as the heat and fanaticism of a moralist? What are the particular strategies of violence in a system that must maintain it is above and beyond “for and against” and is for unending nuance?More importantly, how does an insistence upon ontology (meaning) falsify substance. How does an insistence on substance falsify meaning.

What are the advantages of “who cares” and “so what” in the history of power (the strategies of inviting and not inviting) and how do they figure in the development of post modernism? For this we will be looking at some of the journal entries of Andy Warhol, and some of the party scenes in Proust. We will examine the supposition: power is the right to be arbitrary and contemptuous of all subjects that do not reflect the right to be arbitrary. Power is the lawless generative force of laws, traditions, and beliefs to which it need not adhere. Power never participates in the consistency which it engenders, in that which upholds it. When power obeys its own laws and gatekeepers, it ceases to be power. If this is true, then there are three ways to dismantle a power structure:

1. To go against it (reformers, new movements,)
2. To obey it so perfectly, with such utter obedience that one becomes a “pure” servility. Hence: the gates and the gatekeepers supplant the very thing they were built for and protect. Substance confers substance upon essence and deconstructs it as an essence. The “power” disappears into that which obeys it. (Kafka)
3. To confuse the issues to the point where they shift.

We will look at disdain for romantics in the work of the arch-romantic Byron. Does he disdain romanticism, or only its leadership in the forms of Wordsworth, etc? This will lead to a study of one of the main mechanisms of power which I call: “renaming the father.”

Byron: Not Wordsworth, but Pope (Don Juan).
The modernists (especially Pound): Not Tennyson, but Browning.
The beats: Not Eliot but Williams. Not west, but east. Not leftist action but leftist life style.
Post modernism: not substance, but semiotics of substances that do not exist save for their semiotics.

We will discuss vicarious power through the claiming of origins. We will study the power dynamics of “Studied with.” “read with” “published in” “sponsored by” and “born from.” All this virtual “proof” as created by German academics ad science.How does a poem imply its “studied with,” “read with” “published in” and “born from?” To that end:

If something doesn’t fit any category, and we call it unique, do we mean we are impressed by its originality or confused as to its origins? When we are confused as to a thing’s origins, two reactions– both from the power structure result:

1.We champion the thing or artist as an exotic, a novelty, a bit of the primitive, and the raw, thus either mythologizing or eroticizing it or
2. We disparage, disdain or reject it as a “mistake” an ineptitude, a lack of craft or skill, proof that the artist is a rank amateur.

(Usually we do both).

For this supposition:
- The “peasant” poetry of John Clare
- “Outsider” artists as championed by the elite.
- “Outsiders” as championed by the star making machine (Dylan, Madonna, Eminem)
- Outsiders made immortal by early death (the second generation romantics for example.
- Obscenity trials as a good career move (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, Ginsberg): scandal as a success story.

Some other things we will be delving into:

The modernist obsession with process and material as a value in and of itself and its relation to industrial and post industrial consciousness. The poem as a “thing made out of words.” The painting as paint. Movements against the representational toward the abstract. Movements to retain the representational through disconnects, incongruity, distortion, or comic pastiche.

Finally: the power of literary friendships (how cronies work on the golf course and in the academy). Friendship as power.

This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.

The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.

He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.

Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.

The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.

Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).

Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”

Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).

Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.

Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:

“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.

Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”

This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).

Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:

My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you

Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).

Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.

What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).

He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.

The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.

Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.

He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.

There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.

In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.

This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).

Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”

He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).

It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:

I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.

I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.

When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).

I am reading Rosanna Warren’s book, Departures, and liking it a great deal, and, since I find her poems especially keen on using the entire spectrum of poetic concreteness between representational abstraction and non-representational abstraction. I’ll use her “Portrait: Marriage” as a grounding for what I am trying to get at here as we continue our discussion on concrete and abstract.

Prior to the modernist “revolution” (it was more of an evolution with certain revolutionary slants) poets used a rich and heavily Greek/Latin-influenced sense of occasion and rhetoric to formulate their poems. There were the small lyrics, and the very free madrigals and airs but even these were homages to the small lyrical poems of the Greeks and Romans. Here are some of the more common rhetorical devices.

1. Apostrophic address: speaking directly to the dead, to roses, to nation states, to states of feeling–more or less orating to that which was not likely to orate back.

Go lovely rose! (Waller)
Oh rose, thou art sick!” (Blake)
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour (Wordsworth)
Death, be not proud… (Donne)

2. Pagan allusions, and often apostrophic address to various pagan deities, nymphs, dryads, etc, etc. This was a “conceit”–not a true worship of these gods (at least we are told so). Even devout Christians such as Milton freely wallowed in such allusions. In a sense, it gave the poet and the reader a short hand idea of what he or she should be feeling as well as mirroring the glory of Greek and Roman poetry and taking some of its reflected light.

3. Set forms such as Carpe Diem (seize the day), “when I am dead”poems, poems forbidding mourning, poems that pose the transience of human life against the “immortality”of the poet’s verse, the pastoral poetry in which sheep and herders, and flowers are all having a fine time, the blazon which itemizes the lover’s virtues, the anti-blazon that itemizes the lover’s faults, etc, etc. In addition to this there were the Odes, The Elegies, all modeled on Odes and elegies by Horace and Virigil, and so on and so forth.

Most of these poems used set themes (the brevity of youth, the inevitability of death) and then played splendid variations on the usual tropes. Two forms of poem used by the first generation Romantics gave us an evolution away from public sentiment–or public sensibility played out as private anguish–and introduced what might be deemed “real” anguish: the meditative lyric as devised by Coleridge in such poems as “Frost At Midnight” and Wordsworth’s Odes, and the small introspective lyrics (or anecdotal narrative) as exemplified by Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems.” Coleridge grew bored with the meditative lyric and started writing his more fantastical poems which, via Poe’s love of the abnormal and the macabre, influenced French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the symbolists, and, then, of course, the first generation modernists who were reacting against another branch of Romanticism as exemplified by Tennyson and his followers.

In a sense the modernist got their own tradition brought back to them via the French, and the fantastical elements of this tradition–the love of the primal, the violent, the abnormal–is, in its mode as a derangement of the senses, part of the later surrealist, dadaist, cubust branch of modern poetics: heavy on odd and disjointed images, devoid of rhetoric, and forever searching for some sense of language that appeals through the intuition and the senses rather than through rational thought and feeling. If we take the exotic elements out of this equation, and replace them with camp, pop art, and comic routines, we arrive at much of what I call that poetry which leans towards the non-representational abstract: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, New York school, and all their various offshoots.

If we follow the Wordsworthian path of simplicity, conversational sincerity, and candor, and yoke it to the heavy influence of Japanese and Chinese poems on the imagists (they loved such poems because they seemed cleansed of rhetoric) we get the sort of lucid, feeling based, thought based, ontology driven representational abstraction that one finds in the poems of normative free verse writers–those who build a poem by allowing the sensual details, and incidents to imply a greater meaning or ontology.

There are few “pure strains” of these branches. Poets often take a little from each, and, poem for poem, might lead their concrete details toward the representational or non-representational ends of abstraction. Some poets disguised as surrealists are highly emotive (Neruda, Vallejo). Others who wouldn’t spit on an image even approachig surrealism, are highly detached. What I am saying here is that the concreteness of contemporary poetry relies far more on subjective, supposedly “original” form and imagery, and far less on agreed upon themes and tropes. The rhetorical devices still exist and show up in contemporary poems, but they are more about an inner process removed from a public voice, and tend to brood, to meditate, to narrate an event, the lesson or meaning of which is implied rather than overtly stated. So let’s see what Rosanna Warren does here in Portrait: Marriage:

Through the dark feathering of Spruce boughs and crosshatch
of naked lower branches, through
splatters of beechlight and beyond the shuddered patch
of sky trapped in the pond’s net of depth and shade,
you flicker into view then subside,

into mingled inks and umbers, like the paper birch
reflected: shaft of brilliance probing
the pond’s amnesia: whole: fractured at a touch:
that’s how I’ve seen you over the years,
light robing, and disrobing,
an image upon shaken waters:

That’s how I’ve held you, as one embraces and loses
the muscled slide of water in mid-
stroke, cold, hauling forward to new darkness as
it passes.

That’s all one compound, complex sentence, held together by colons, and semi colons. The voice of the poem seems to be claiming that even though this is her spouse, he remains, in some vital way, elusive, in and out–like the flickering, and filigree, and dapple and light of the garden, and of the pond. Warren is considered somewhat of neo-formalist, and the chore she has set for herself here is to get a great deal of supporting concrete images into two remarkably constructed sentences. The next sentence begins an evolution away from the first, as would happen at the volta (turn ) of a sonnet. I think she owes something to Williams’ “Spring and All.” The ending of the first sentence reflects a ghost of that older and more famous poem with its use of the word “cold” (but I digress). Suffice it to say, in this poem, Warren exemplifies the strategy of the contemporary concrete toward representational abstraction; she uses images to imply a meaning: even a spouse, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, remains a mystery, and contingent, and provisional–an only now of leaf loam, a contingent and provisional reality within the abstract “fixed” form of marriage.

We might abstract her poem as “Even a husband of many years, even the most intimate of relationships, is a provisional reality, and depends on moment by moment attention to detail.”

We might try poetic abstraction and get clever and put it all into a neat couplet:

Like holding water is my hold on you:
my husband, ever changing, ever true.

Or we might go for a haiku sort of thing:

Through the branches of a garden,
suddenly, my husband of thirty years:
this utterly strange creature, of light of shade.

So I think we have a ball park idea of the complex spectrum of concrete imagery towards either representational or non-representational abstraction. We are always towards an abstraction, one way or the other, but the use of detail, how we emphasize or mute, or play with an image is at the heart of contemporary poetics. A beginner must learn that contemporary poetry–no matter what the school–does not directly state its maxims, and when it does, it does so with a great deal more supporting evidence since nothing can be agreed upon. We do not share the same frames of reference, and we have spent a hundred years raising subjective consciousness to a sort of God. At the same time, we have the cult of science with its own rhetoric of empirical and “objective” fact pitted against the old rhetoric of proverbial and idiomatic thought and feeling. Both our sense of the objective and subjective have changed, and the borders between them are as elusive, as provisional as Rosanna Warren’s spouse.

Entering a new language is entering a new world. But what does it mean to be “in” a world? The word “in” originally had no spatial connotations. To say that someone was “in” something meant that they existed “in anger” or “in love.” Love and anger are not places, but modes of being. But this means that you can say these statements another way: to be “in anger” is to be angrily and “in love” is to be lovingly. To be “in a world” means to be worldly.

When you enter a new language, you enter a new mode of being. This is true not simply of English, Chinese, Farsi, etc. but also of the language games of technologies, skills, and other modes of thought. As long as there is a new vocabulary, it is a new language game, and anywhere there are new rules is a new world. Entering a new language is not simply acquiring a new means of communication, but, as Micah Towery said, learning a new way of thinking. I would go even further: to enter a new language is to enter a new way of being.

As Okakura Kakuzo said in The Book of Tea, “All translation is treason.” This is very true, but I would modify this: all we have is translation. All we have is treason. Every conversation is predicated on our essential being-guilty. To put it another way, discourse only proceeds when we remain open to the possibility of miscommunicating our ideas. Closedness is the greatest enemy to communication and to healthy relationships. If there is ever such a thing as Original Sin, it is most obvious in language – the mere birth of language brings about contradictory concepts. Language unites and separates. All discourse, though, requires concerted effort. The word “relationship” is overused, and there is nothing inherently good in having a relation to anything – relations can be good or bad, as my wife’s in-laws consistently prove.

Every action (and word) has a limitless number of consequences, most of which cannot be predicted. Because of the unpredictability of spontaneous conversation, the only way to sustain dialogue is forgiving the unintended consequences of the Other’s words (and our own).  Forgiveness is therefore the very life of conversation and the heart of discourse. Without a constant flow of forgiveness even disagreement is impossible.

Forgiveness frees the victim and the victimizer from the crime. The victim is freed from the inhibition of the grudge, and the criminal is freed from the bondage of her sin. Engaging a new language is one of trial and error, but also always forgiveness of errors.

So, while we are all guilty of treason and are thus all guilty, we are all also in need of forgiveness. Whatever truth may be, it is always expressed in a historically-bound vocabulary and cannot be abstracted from our historical situation. But what makes up our vocabulary? Whatever  conditions affected our species, our countries, our families, and finally ourselves. Since none of these conditions are ever identical, no vocabulary is identical and thus no world is identical. Translation is treason, but treason is our own means of being in the world.

If we believe metaphors can build civilizations, and if we agree that power is the right to decide which metaphors will be beliieved and instituted as truths, which ones will generate class, or race, or who is worthy, and who is debased, then we get at the heart of why Surrealism was, initially, a political movement whose strategy of disassociation and derangement was an attempt to take metaphors away from the power structures of state, of reason, of class, filter them through the subconscious, and re-empower them free of capitalist oppression. The trouble was, surrealism could do the same thing to Stalinism, or communism, and its process of dismantling agreed-upon authority got many a dadaist and surrealist killed. Later, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry would also begin with a political agenda of destroying the concept of property–deconstructing the authority of the speaker and freeing the auditor to invest or not invest in the process of utterance. But, for our purpose, we are going to look at this shift in metaphor as a change in “willful ignorance.”

All metaphors are, eventually, false, inaccurate, distortians of reality. Reality itself is a distortion. Frost–the conservative–said as much. Yet, by giving metaphors their due and refining them, we can create a sense of order, priority, and narrative that helps us negotiate the complexities of life. The problem arises when we impose that order through our political and religious systems. All metaphors when tested, fall apart, and, once we do not accept them at “face” value, all metaphors begin to seem absurd. Surrealism, dadaism, cubism, absurdism, language poetry, and, to an extent, the New York School of poets, and all the gradations in between, are a choice to emphasize the instability, silliness, and shiftiness of metaphor, while hyping its “process.” Thus, the atrophy of agreed upon meanings leads to the hypertrophy of a “process” of meanings.

Of course, my problem with that is, being idiots of system, we then make everything mere process, mere trope, mere parody, mere mark and counter mark, and we become immured in the qualifications and in the glamour of process, and power again rears its head and wears the terrible mask of the sociopathic trickster, the one who is willfully ignorant that his ongoing deconstructions of the linear, the sensical, the emotive, are, in themselves, a rigid construction– no matter how ongoing. All one might succeed in doing is creating flux and process as ultimate oppression. But let’s put that aside. I believe that a person who still believes in co-herence, and “meaning” and emotional truth can use some of the techniques of those who do not believe in any of those values toward good results. I also believe that a post-modernist does not have to abandon agreed upon meanings, or emotion, or tenderness, but can translate them into his process of deconstruction, derangement of the senses, and absurdist metaphor. We can have our cake and eat it, too, just as long as the cake we have and the cake we eat are not the same.

So this brings me to an excerpt from Breton’s poem “Knot of Mirrors.” The title is, well, knotty. How can you have a knot of mirror? It is nonsensical is it not? Oh, but how can you have a “rosy fingered dawn?” Taken out of its agreed upon acceptance as describing both the color and emotion of seeing the dawn, it is just as absurd and false as Breton’s knot of mirrors. But it is not being so willfully false. Let’s proceed:

The lovely open and shut windows
hanging on the lips of day.

Does day have lips? Not any day I have seen. But does a ship’s prow plough the field of the sea? Nope. This is called personification. If day has a face, then it can have lips, and windows can hang from them. Let us proceed:

The lovely shirt clad windows
The lovely windows with fiery hair in the black night.

So the windows are given human qualities. They may even, once personified, stand in for the whole of a person– a sort of strange synecdoche, or metonymy, but the metaphors here are being freely mixed and confused. The window wears a shirt, or it has fiery hair in the black night. Now we can conjecture that perhaps people are standing in the windows, and the windows are standing in for those people who are standing at the windows, and thus the lovely windows hang from the lips of day. It is complicated, yet no less or more absurd than conventional metaphor. It is not “Agreed” upon. It seems to be generated from a personal and private consciousness (or unconscious), which we may observe but not share in. This quality promotes the sense of voyeurism much modern art is comprised of: we are watching a verbal performance we do not wilfully pretend is a mirror held up to nature, and we either enjoy the process of this performance or grow indignant and insist it make sense in the way we are used to things making sense. We are in a dream world and our agreements with it may be only sympathetic rather than actual, but this is true of all verbal constructs. Modernism and Post-modernism do not hide the strings of the puppet show. Sometimes, there are no puppets and only strings. There is a dream world. During the day someone might mention to you that their lover bought a new car, and that night, you might dream a Ferrari rides up to your window, and, somehow, that Ferrari is also your own lover– disguised as a Ferrari. Or it is both a Ferrari and your lover?

Anyway, the point is, once we agree all metaphors break down, that they are distortions that allow us to enter a schema of distortions, we need not be so dismissive of certain surreal images. They are not rational. Old, pre-modernist metaphor is not rational either, but it depends on the agreed upon conceit of rationality upon the metaphor. Phrases that make total sense are truly, when scrutinized in this manner, absurd. If I tell you: “I am facing facts,” you know what I mean and accept, unless you decide not to. If not, you say, where are these “facts” you face? I can see a wall, or a statue, or me, and you can “face” these (again metonymy and synecdoche) but you can not “face” the facts. And “face” is, itself, figurative, a part for the whole.

So our problem with surrealism or language poetry is not one of nonsense, but of nonsense that seems outside the normative boundaries of our usual comparisons, and assumptions.

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
Of visual phenomena
(a film without intertitles)
(a film without script)
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

In my next several posts, I am going to talk about metaphors and the invisible neutrino of “and” that lies beneath them. I will make the following contentions:

1. Metaphors are as much about disassociation as association
2. Metaphors generate subtexts.
3. Consciousness and metaphor are inseparable.
4. To present two unlike objects is to create the implicit arc of metaphor.

5. All language is relational.

In a sense, language is innately metaphorical because no word is the thing or state of being it describes. We can call a person “Big Ben” or “tree” if he is tall, “bean pole” if he is skinny, or we can call an obese person “slim” or “bean pole.” This is ironic, sarcastic, incongruous. An obese person is certainly not “Slim,” but to say to an obese friend, “Hey Slim,” can carry far more meaning than calling him “hey, obese friend.” First, we may be assuming an intimacy that is allowing us to tease him (one must be careful of assuming anything in this post-structural age in which the rigid structure of political correctness has been raised). Depending on the tone, the situation, and our attitude, “Slim” can be endearing, scathing, or merely habitual. For this reason, I will use Bentham’s idea of laudatory, neutral, and dislogistic registers of speech.

We can call a person a “leader (laudatory, unless we are being tongue in cheek). We can call that same person “assertive” (one of the qualities of a leader, and neutral in tone) or we can call him a “tyrant,” bossy, macho, aggressive, a slave driver, or Hitler (dislogistic). Here’s the miracle of language: suppose this person has just made love, and he ravished his lover in a way she approves of, and when they are done, and doing advanced Yoga (for who smokes afterwards in this age of madness?), she turns to him and kisses his assertive shoulder and says: “Aww… my little Hitler.” She has just made Hitler a term of endearment. But does Hitler go away as a possibly dislogistic implication? Not at all! Thus, a dislogistic term, used in an affectionate or laudatory way creates a sort of dialectical energy and charge. At the same time, she is being loving, she is also affirming that this man is assertive, or macho, or, perhaps, even a power junkie, such as Hitler.

This is why comedy often tells us what we have built a piety around. If you want to know the piety of a culture, see what its comics are mocking or tweeking. In the old screw ball comedy, My Man Geoffrey, two rich and spoiled society girls go to a junkyard on a scavenger hunt for charity to find a “lost man.” If they can bring a homeless man back to the mansion, they will win the scavenger hunt. The movie was made during the depression, and this “hunt” immediately established the cluelessness and privilege of the sisters and showed the seriousness of that age by making light of it. It both cushioned the full blow of the plight, and served to define it.

Metaphor then is volatile, and it is always relational. Even when it seeks to detach, it joins, and when it would join, it detaches. It creates disassociation as much as it creates association. Metaphors are properties of fractal and generative consciousness, but they are also distortion. We live in our verbal universe, communicate complex emotions, negotiate the most subtle nuances through a series of distortions. We can fall prey to our metaphors. In point of fact, consciousness could be defined as the willingness to fall prey to one’s metaphors. We can think, reason, learn, even negotiate space and time without metaphors, but we can not be fully human in the sense of nuance, irony, and social parlance without them. Our age, being still caught in the scientific myth of denotative terms, objective reality, empirical truth, has fed this myth to those who would root out injustice, and prejudice, by making sure all speech is neutral–devoid of either its dislogistic or laudatory registers.

Ah, but here’s the rub: A child blows up his sister, and the father calls him into the living room and says: “Now son… blowing up your sister was inappropriate.” That might get a laugh years ago, but, in our present “professional” world, pedophilia, blowing up one’s sister, and eating San Francisco might very well be called “inappropriate actions” and no one laughs. This scares the hell out of me. To use Aspergers as a metaphor, there is something Aspergian about this state of affairs. We can blame scientists. We can blame the cult of neutrality. We can even blame a sort of extreme dadaist literalism. Our neutral speech is as much a semiotic indicator of power and control as our dislogistic and laudatory speech–far more so. Someone living in a dislogistic register will give us the sense of someone ignorant, crude, not in command of his or her emotions. Someone living in a laudatory register will give us the sense of a suck up, a cheerleader, a person courting favor.

Social intelligence calls for both negotiating these registers along situational and contextual lines, and blurring those lines. Neutral speech can be anger and ultimate violence made conspicuous by its absence. To say “we have decided to disregard the civilian casualties in a particular campaign and to pursue our objective with extreme prejudice” is to apply a “professional” gloss to the intentional killing and destruction of thousands. Language allows us to call genocide a “final solution.” Just as a relation means separate as much as together, our language distances us from our deeds as much as it defines them. It allows us to call the death of children in warfare “collateral damage.” As for me, I’d rather have someone call me an asshole than refer to me as “expendable.” To take all the emotion out of a verbal construct in no way lessens the violence of a culture, but may even increase it. When a metaphor allows us to detach, and all metaphors allow us to detach, it becomes dangerous, but, without that danger, no consciousness, and no poetry is possible.

A metaphor then seeks to be misunderstood as well as understood, albeit in a fruitful and generative way. Poets, before scientists, were the first disciplinarians where metaphors are concerned. They did not want them mixed. They did not want them too imprecise. A poet is the lion tamer of metaphor, but, in creating a lion to tame, he also makes a lion who can possibly eat a culture, define it, distort it. “The age of reason” is a metaphor. If we break it down, it is not accurate. We move toward grace by a judicious stumbling. This stumbling is consciousness, and consciousness depends, to a very great extent, on our metaphors–not only their precision, but their power to distort.

“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. My “love is a rose” is a metaphor. The simile can contain a likeness or affinity without being beholden to a full substance. The simile qualifies. It says: my love is like a rose because, like a rose, it is beautiful to me and makes me feel lively the way roses indicate the life of summer has arrived. And it is sweet to the smell, and soft to the touch, but it also has thorns and can hurt. And it is brief and must wither and die. A metaphor says to the simile, “Well, if that’s the case, my love IS a rose!” Metaphors are committed to falsehood and inexactness for the sake of a possibility more vital than precision. They allow us to move more quickly through the world by a series of almost, close to, and close enough.

The great sage of consciousness, Julian Jaynes, broke metaphors down into “metaphrands” (the unseen quality or emotion we are trying to get at), “metaphier” (the thing we use to get at it), “paraphrands” (the subtext of the metaphrand), and “paraphier” (the subtext of the paraphrand). We will confine ourselves to the metaphrand and the metaphier, here:

“My love” is the metaphrand. I want to express its qualities, so I resort to a metaphier of the rose. Now, once this metaphor enters the language, everyone accepts it at face value. When that happens you have a cliche. You can either refuse to use the cliche or you can have fun with it, deconstruct it, or, like a good dadaist, take it absolutely literally. In a Marx brothers movie, Chico might say to Groucho: “Boss, it’s raining cats and dogs.” Groucho might say: “Quick man! Have you no sense? Go out there and put some of that rain on a leash… I could use a good pet.”

This sort of humor comes from taking the figurative literally. Comedy is of the head more than the heart because, in addition to testing and teasing our behavioral pieties, it tests and teases our sacred metaphors. In a Marx Brothers movie, the absurdity of dreams is generated by taking a metaphor with all its metapheirs and exploding it. We “derange” the senses– something Rimbaud advocated at the beginning of modernist poetry. A simple way into modernism and post-modernism is to say that, like pre-modernism, it moves through a universe of metaphors. Unlike pre-modernism, it seeks to emphasize not the associative, but the dis-associative aspects of metaphors, and, by doing so, create a new perspective by incongruity. In this respect, it is essentially comic, though often in a terrifying, nightmarish way. So to re-cap, metaphors connect unlike things, create relationship, and allow us to move through the world while at the same time creating disconnects, confusions, and falsehoods. Post-modernism emphasizes this later power.

In the next post we will look at a poem by Andre Breton that functions in this respect. Some people don’t “get” the Marx Brothers. They are “silly.” Some people don’t get why anyone would feel pleasurably sad watching a sunset. They lack that emotional nuance. In the one case, an overly pious F-factor (feeling) may short circuit the humor. In the other case, an overly emphasized T-factor (thought) might make the person blind to “pleasurable sadness.” Let’s try to be capable of both, but each new poem will cause us to choose, and in a hundred subtle ways.

Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.

First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:

The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
the fortune-teller
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.

Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.

Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”

So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:

Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim


his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull


Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.


My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.

These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).

But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.

My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:

My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.

Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.

And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”

In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.

Mathews likes wandering off the topic (or, really, having no real topic, no subject of discourse), a familiar strategy of Ashbery and other New York poets with whom he is associated:

For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.

But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.

Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.

That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:

There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.

All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.

How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)

Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:

When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.

Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.

And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:

Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .

. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror

of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.

It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:

. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell

of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .

Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.

Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.

Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.

Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:

  • Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
  • An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
  • Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism

At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.

[click to continue…]

There is a specifically poetic shape to the anxieties visible in Walt Whitman’s poetry. Looking at Whitman’s theory of language and how that theory works out in the poems, the shape of the anxiety becomes apparent.

He had this Transcendentalist idea of language, detailed by Tyler Hoffman in his essay, “Language,”by C. Carroll Hollis in his crucial work, and by Mark Bauerlein in Walt Whiman and the American Idiom. This idea of language is one where “words are emanations of reality and truth,” Hoffman says, and for Whitman “language is not just a system of signs we humans have at hand to express ourselves; rather, it stands as a cultural complex, one that registers our deepest beliefs as a people and a nation.”

Whitman rejected the empiricists’ claims about the arbitrariness of signs, that language is basically a convention that only happens to have the grammatical structure and phonetic sounds it has, and instead, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Prussian language theorist Wilhelm von Humbolt, and American philologist William Swinton (who was Whitman’s friend and for whom, it has been extensively argued, Whitman ghost wrote on the subject of language, cf. James Perrin Warren’s “Whitman as Ghostwriter,” Hollis, and Hoffman), embraced the idea that words contain within them the reality of the spirit of the people who use them. As Swinton’s book says, in a chapter possibly ghostwritten by Whitman, “Language is not a cunning conventionalism arbitrarily agreed upon; it is an internal necessity. Language is not a fiction, but a truth,” and, again, “Speech is no more the dead mechanism it used to be conceived. Each language is a living organism.”

Words are not mere signs or symbols for representations, but embodied the spirit of those who use them. As Whitman said, in an essay on American slang:

“The scope of [Language’s] etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation. Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.”

If his language theory stopped at this point, and was merely a point about the importance of the life and spiritual reality of words, it wouldn’t necessarily feed any anxiety, but Whitman went further. If he had just believed that this is the way words were, then that wouldn’t have necessitated any internal, poetry-focused worry, but he believed words could, depending on the way they were used, lose the spirit they have. They could be more alive, “vitaliz’d,” or they could die, depending on the poet. He believed words and the things they represented could, if words weren’t used well or if their use was too domesticated, too refined, be separated and disunited, and when that happens, then the words would be just inert symbols on a page, abstract and arbitrary and dead. This was the distinction Whitman made between good and bad poetry, but he also thought of it in terms of life and death. He believed the life that words contain and carry could be killed, could be buried, and there was a need to connect word and thing, and a need to reinvigorate the language. Whitman was not being metaphorical when he said that a great poet

“would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, build, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with calvary or infantry, or do anything, that man or women or the natural powers can do.”

This can be and has been taken as mere inspirational blather – the poet’s equivalent of a poster for a library’s children’s summer reading program with castles and flying horses and faraway lands – but Whitman’s theory of language is that this is what actually happens, this manifestation of life, this invigoration, when words are used well.

To use the structuralist terminology of “sign” and “signified,” Whitman wanted the sign and the signified to be the same thing, to come together and, at the moment of poet’s invocation, be one. He wanted to cross the gap between sign and signified by poetic force. He said:

“A perfect user of words uses things—they exude in power and beauty from him—miracles from his hands—miracles from his mouth—lilies, clouds, sunshine, woman, poured copiously—things whirled like chain-shot rocks, defiance, compulsion, horses, iron, locomotives, the oak, the pine, the keen eye, the hairy breast, the Texan ranger, the Boston truckman, the woman that arouses a man, the man that arouses a woman”.

He wanted the sign to be more than a sign, more than arbitrary, to really be alive, to be the thing, be filled with the spirit of the thing signified and the spirit of the people using the sign, but he consistently found that he was trapped in the realm of the sign, unable to bridge over to the reality of things, and that poems are made out of words – the vibrant life he wants to yawp is, on the page, only arbitrary symbols. There is, on his pages, throughout his work, Hoffman says, a pervading “anxiety about the ability to communicate through inert signs and symbols, about the intermediation of the printed page.”

There are moments of panic and places where he is desperate to escape mere words, to sing something untranslatable, something that is not language but just life. Whitman believed his work was worthless unless the words were alive, unless the poem was the same as his body, the same as his life, and he felt himself failing, which might go some way to explaining the constant, life-long revision, and the ongoing innovation, a “pattern of completion and escape” that appears almost compulsive. Whitman’s poetry often takes this form James Perrin Warren calls “constantly reinventing itself and thereby eluding the form it had already taken” and he seems to have this “sense of elusive, pervading ‘something’” that he cannot grasp, cannot achieve. Indeed, his life work might be better characterized by revision of poems than by actually writing them. One need not do a comparative analysis of the various volumes of poetry to find this anxiety, though. It comes across in the poems in their final, “authorized” form.

This anxiety is evident throughout the work: In his talk about singing birds, with their untranslatable songs that simply express life as the model for poetry, Whitman holds his verse to a standard that he fears he cannot meet; in his three-tiered description of poetry in “Song of Myself,” Whitman attempts to establish a taxonomy of poetry, and of the ways of using words, but then it collapses, and he finds his own best version of poetry is always inflicted with the death and artifice of the worst; in his declarations and pronouncements, his illocutionary speech acts, Whitman attempts to push and invoke life, to call it forth and animate the poem (almost, it seems, by force), but the attempts are ridden by their failure, and by an anxiety about poetry.

Because of this theoretical foundation, Whitman’s poetry is full of worries about theory and form, and the yawp so celebrated for its liberating barbarismis an anxious yawp.