Sunday, March 9, 2008

recommended reading

James Longenbach's superb little book, The Art of the Poetic Line, is so clearly written and chock-full of insights, it has started me thinking about meaning again, only in a different way, to wit: a poem's meaning may be a bonus (or even a distraction) but it is not a necessity. A poem gives aesthetic pleasure, evokes emotion, and otherwise entertains and engages the senses and intellect, but it serves no useful function. In other words, the use of language--to communicate meaning--is not the primary use of language in a poem because a poem, like any other art, is entirely useless. The fact that a poem is composed with something we also use to communicate meaning (our language) doesn't mean that language in a poem must also communicate meaning. As Longenbach eloquently details, there are many and various ways that a poem creates an effect in, and engages with, the reader--communicating meaning is only one of them, and that one, not even necessary (his discussion of Ashbery is especially relevant to this idea). Instead, the sonic texture, syntactical variety, and kinds of line break (or line end as he likes to refer to it), trump any mere communication of meaning. They create associations in the reader that may become meaning or may simply stay in the realm of reverie.

The idea that there is a split between meaning (something deep) and craft (something superficial) is erroneous as any editor can tell you—or any poet who's done serious revision on their work. You can hardly fiddle with the language in a poem, or the line breaks, or the syntax, or even the simplest grammatical element, like pronouns, without turning the poem toward, if not into, something else. It's like the idea of a split between style and content--what could that be? How could that be? I have to smile when I hear commentators describing Obama's speeches as "just words" or "only words"--again, this idea that there's a "surface" of language that is somehow inferior to its "deep" meaning. How is such meaning attained if not through the surface, the words?

Longenbach's discussion of prose poems is particularly enlightening, and I like how he goes immediately to the one writer who most decisively demonstrates that there is no split between the two--James Joyce. How is Joyce's prose different from poetry? It's not lineated--overtly, that is. But is lineation the only way to finally define a poem? Longenbach quotes Mallarme's provocative, but finally, all-too-broad, remark:

There is no such thing as prose. There is the alphabet and then there are verses, which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.

I also appreciate Longenbach's discussion of poems that are "semantically incoherent and syntactically coherent"--a great way to describe elliptical poetry (yes, it all leads back to ellipticism ;-).


Joseph Hutchison said...

"A poem gives aesthetic pleasure, evokes emotion, and otherwise entertains and engages the senses and intellect, but it serves no useful function." [My emphasis]

I follow your writing faithfully and have rarely had a serious disagreement with you—until now. Poems serve useful functions by doing the very thing you describe: engaging the senses and intellect. The better the poem, but more the reader is engaged—that is, the more the reader's perceptions change. Especially in a thoroughly propagandized age like our own, in a porno-Puritan schizoid culture like our own, poems (good poems, I mean) re-engage us with our own humanity, which can only help us as we struggle to engage with the humanity of those around us. If that isn't useful, I don't know what is.

Joan Houlihan said...

Thanks, Joseph. I was using "useful" here in its more narrow sense as in "practical." For example, a set of instructions is useful in that it enables the reader to do something. However, I like your idea of usefulness, that a poem enables the reader to "engage with the humanity of those around us."

Ms Baroque said...

Hi there Joan!

Of course there is usefulness and then there's usefulness. I've just finished reading (& reviewing; though not this aspect particularly) Ted Hughes' letters, and he (for example) very clearly saw poetry as having a function, but he would have defined that as a shamanistic function. One might as well, I imagine, say that aspirin has no usefulness.

I'm not disagreeing with you; I'm just opening out the possible definitions... anyway, by following your link I just read the first few pages of another book of Longenbach's, called The Resistance to Poetry, which also looks intensely interesting. His cenral idea seems to be that by allowing poetry simply to BE poetry we can allow it to have the power that comes from occupying its space - instead of always trying to "be" something "more."

Anyway, I'll link your blog, now that I know about it. And please note that I've moved mine, although Blogger doesn't let me change my link. It's now at