Friday, December 28, 2007

looking for mr. elliptical

Since I’ve been asked by Chad Parmenter to participate in a symposia on the subject of Elliptical Poetry, I’ve been pondering the meaning of ellipticism—in poetry and everywhere else. Stephen Burt applied the word to a handful of poets in the early ‘90s (see American Letters and Commentary, Issue #11 and, online, my interview with him in Perihelion) but they didn’t then and don’t now seem to have much in common other than the fact that their poems had and still have lots things left out. In the strict definition of the word, at least as it best applies to writing, elliptical means "Of or relating to extreme economy of oral or written expression" and ellipsis, "The omission of a word or phrase necessary for a complete syntactical construction but not necessary for understanding." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

The poets—Jorie Graham, Lucie Brock-Broido, Liam Rector, et. al.—that Burt cited seem "Elliptical" enough (note however, in my email correspondance with Liam Rector a few months ago, he made the point that he no longer wrote "that way" and that his poems were now "voice-driven" and in a recent conversation with Lucie B, she asked "what does that mean anyway, elliptical?") but the question I have is: what contemporary poetry is not elliptical? Isn’t poetry by its very nature economical, often to the point of obscurity, and full of "holes"—unanswered questions, hints, deliberate or unintentional implications? So, in order to discover what’s truly Elliptical Poetry, I’ve been looking for contemporary non-elliptical poetry lately, through a random sampling of contemporary poetry journals. Such journals yield tons of starkly elliptical poems, like this one, from Conjunctions (I cite only the first 6 parts):

The rostrum is able to mail.
Malachy owns a keyshop.

Safeguard is better than barter.
Great Wall with tourists and tiffin.

Crinoline is surface for stencil.
Brinkmanship begets a willow.

Expression is tinder or organ.
Muppets maneuver toward maunder.

Sultan brings pleasure on raisins.
A date palm is edgy or eider.

Helmut does straddle the chicken.
Synecdoche is plangent or pointed.

from Broken Code by Matt Reeck

As with an old rock-built wall in a pasture, the lines balance one upon another in such a way that the light shows through all the spaces between. It’s the kind of poem where the holes are most prominent. Editors call it "line stacking." Yet, looking at what might be the polar opposite of such a poem, one that’s warm ‘n fuzzy with connectivity (what Silliman believers call "school of quietude" poetry), I see that it too is elliptical:

In January

by Ted Kooser

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.

What’s missing? Into what holes may a reader fall? For starters, who is this "us" and what does the "it" in the second line refer to? Is "it" the overall idea that the night looks like a "frozen hive" or is "it" the idea that only one cell in that hive is lit? If the latter (which is probably the case), then why does it only "seem" to be lit? The colon, a very popular form of punctuation these days, nicely joins the next line in a kind of cinematic jump, from outside to inside, instantly. The hole, what’s left out, is of course the transition between the two lines. In the fourth line, the word "whose" opens into a hole—how do "odors" have "colorful shapes"? In the fifth line, who is laughing and talking? There is no subject and the "tick of chopsticks" is ghostly—who’s making that happen? And so on, and so on. In other words, my literal-mindedness has exposed holes in this poem, but mainly they are the kind of holes that make a poem, a poem—use of metaphor, lack of narrative transition, equation of seemingly unlike things by means of juxtaposition or punctuation, grammatical ambiguities, etc, etc. Only a churlish reader would object to what’s missing here because what’s missing is unnecessary. One can enjoy and understand this poem well enough without knowing more than what’s given.

So, the question about ellipticism remains: what kind of poem is not elliptical? And, if all poems are elliptical by definition, then what does the term Elliptical Poetry mean, if anything?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

unheard maladies

Reading poetry submissions for my workshops, manuscript conferences, and for the magazine I edit, Perihelion, often puts me into a state of reverie that is related to the kind of state I achieved when reading poetry in my youth—that is, I am transported and moved—except where I am transported to, and what I’m moved to do, has changed. For example, I am often transported from my couch to my kitchen by a mighty wave of boredom and moved to shout obscenities as I go. And if a poet walks across my path at that moment, then don’t wait up for that poet because I’ll be busy disposing of their body in my backyard, digging a hasty hole, or I’ll be burning the poet with his or her manuscript taped to the chest for a burning booster. It makes a lovely light.

Poetry rage is an under diagnosed condition among editors. The symptoms include: involuntary head shaking, bitten finger tops, auditory or olfactory hallucinations (e.g. a constant sense that something smells bad), restless sleep and, last stage, unexplained weeping and tearing of paper. Why do people write such awful poems? The question haunts me.

I used to believe that becoming a poet had to do with necessity of expression, a need to convey thought and emotion so ineffable that the usual speaking and writing channels just couldn’t handle it. Now I think it’s something else: an incredibly accurate diagnostic instrument, more informative than a brain scan—only in a poem can someone impart such banality of concept, such disconnected thinking and flatness of affect so quickly and effectively. Economy of expression allows instant exposure of one’s interior landscape, and puts me in the role, not of editor or even something so worthwhile as therapist, but rather as unwilling witness to the same terrible thing the poet must undergo on a daily basis: the sense of nothing at all to say. Is anybody there? the poet seems to ask. Can anyone see a worthwhile thought, a flash of originality, somewhere here, back here, behind this wall of clichéd babble about my relatives, my lost love, my incredibly ordinary life? How about over here, behind this hastily built stack of nonsensical utterances and clever-sounding lines that don’t connect to one another? Am I here? Am I still alive? Help, please help me, tell me you can read this, it’s my last chance of communicating my existence, that I was here.