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?


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Joan,

I'm very excited that you've started a blog. It is, unsurprisingly, smart, lively, and thoughtfully opinionated. I love fact that you don't pull any punches and don't try to be diplomatic. I confess that I don't have the energy to argue much any more, so I just tend to steer clear of various hornets' nests these days. But somebody's got to do some fumigating, and I'm glad you've taken it on.

I was impressed that you managed to find a Ted Kooser poem that wasn't terrible or terribly boring. But I have one little caveat about your otherwise very insightful discussion. You question what the "it" in the line "or so it seems to us" refers to, but "or so it seems" is a fixed expression in English, meaning "at least that's how things appear" (with the implication that such an impression might be mistaken).

I did greatly appreciate your main point that pretty much any interesting poem is elliptical, since all good poems try to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. As Ezra Pound wrote, Dichtere=condensare. Good ol' Ez.

Take good care, and blog on!

peace and poetry,


Joan Houlihan said...

Dear Reginald,

Thank you for this comment--my very first! I'm honored that you stopped by. And yes, to your comment about "it" in "so it seems to us"--I am being ultra literal-minded for the sake of the analysis and I guess mowing down fixed expressions in my path. But I aspire to be diplomatic, Reginald! Am I failing already?


Chad Parmenter said...

Joan, thanks for your awesome thoughts. They help me with the quesion that I've been working on, of how Elliptical poetry relates to ellipsis--whether a paratactic poem is Elliptical. Burt's essay offers a lot of traits for an Elliptical poet, and it will be interesting to see how many of those are variations on ellipsis.

Joan Houlihan said...

Hey, Chad, thanks for stopping by and leaving me "paratactic" to think about!


Anonymous said...

I loved the exploration in your blog. I found it by typing a term I read in a book which was describing Pounds transitions as elliptical, with some sort of assumption that the reader should know fairly precisely what that means. So this was great to read. However, I must admit finding Reginald Shepard's momentary voice here in such a sort of casual and obscure place was really a great piece to start my day with.