What's broken commands attention. Glass shatters and there is surprise, danger, sharp edges, and the scattered pieces reflect light in unexpected ways. A disturbance of wholeness and immediately we are provoked to wonder: what was it before it broke? The contemporary poem has been decisively shattered by various techniques such as fragmentation, juxtaposition, collage, ellipsis and manipulation of space on the page. Ashbery and Graham have been using these techniques for many years, as have a host of newer poets including D.A. Powell, Joshua Clover, Dan Beachy-Quick, Matthea Harvey, Karen Volkman, Andrew Zawacki, Noah Eli Gordon and many more—in fact, so many more that the trajectory of contemporary American poetry is decisively aimed toward non-linerarity and fragmentation (of idea or image, or both) and away from the (still) prevailing mode of narrative, confessional, lyric and meditative"I"-based poems. Of course, there have always been poetries operating apart from the I- driven narrative and lyric, and a healthy crosstalk has been going on among and between all current and past styles for many years, as, for example, between lyric-I, narrative, and Language Writing, or between poems and other types of writing such as essay, discourse, fiction, journalism and speech—everyday idiom or heightened rhetoric.
As with fragments from an archeological dig—pot shard, parchment piece, splinter of bone—we are provoked into imagining the whole from which they came. Engaging us in that imaginative act gives the broken poem interest, as well as intellectual or emotional traction, a handrail however shaky or newly constructed at every step. I was interested to see this described in another way in the article Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise . An excellent and visual example of provocative fragmenting is Mary Ruefelle's A Little White Shadow (Wave Books)—a small, lovely book that is itself an art object, each page seemingly smeared with white-out, allowing only glimpses of phrase, image, line, that tantalize into imagined sequences and narratives, a possible world, a back story now invisible but informing the surface.
The reading of shattered poems is inevitably accompanied by the question: what was it before it broke? Is there a hint of story to be reconstructed? An identifiable emotional center? A tradition, a form, an historical construct of any kind? Any sense of a wholeness that shadows a poem, whether it is only hinted at (the ongoing sense of prayer haunting DA Powell's Cocktails) or obvious (the sonnet form broken and reassembled by Volkman in Nomina) is, it seems to me, what gives the poem's brokenness its power.
Sensing the existence of an integrity behind even the most apparently broken poem, a reader uses that sense to navigate and cohere small islands of linearity, similarity or mood within the poem. How far apart the islands lie, how much of a leap from one to the next is required by the reader, and whether or not the reader senses a wholeness shadowing the display of dispararities has, I believe, a lot to do with the success of such a poem.