Friday, November 28, 2008

origin of the pieces

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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if there isn't a minimum level of coherence required for a poem to "work"—i.e., to make the reader (which reader?) feel it's worth the effort. One only has to spin through Carroll F. Terrell's A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound to conclude that this grand collection of fragmented dottiness may not be as rewarding to read as it probably was to write. So—is 10% coherence enough? 50%? Does the level of coherence have anything to do with the coherence of our everyday lives? That is, could the lack of coherence some poems seek to reflect be exaggerated? Could they be reflective, I mean, not of our lives as lived, but as described by this or that theory? It seems to me that the kind of poetry you're describing is in thrall to theory, and that the poets who write them don't feel comfortable writing without a security blanket of stitched-together theoretical ideas....

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

(Oops) Please insert 'of', above. :-)

P.S. Congratulations on the publication of your poem in Poetry magazine.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I can’t help but wonder if this “shattered” poetry isn’t part of the reason for today’s fractured readership. Those who write for peers and other poets instead of ordinary people are rarely embraced by posterity. We can read the work of many poets who wrote hundreds of years ago and their words and meaning are clear. Much of the poetry now written is unclear even to the poet’s contemporaries. When the poets and peers are dead and gone, only the remaining population will determine the fate of their work. Why would they choose a pot shard over an intact useful pot, a parchment piece over a complete scroll with a clear message or a splinter of bone over a living, healthy beast? Why choose the “hint of a story” instead of the story itself?

A poem is a poem. A puzzle is a puzzle.

Joan Houlihan said...

Joseph, yes, I think there is a "minimum level of coherence" required, but I think the word "connectedness" is more accurate in this context. By that, I don't mean an a to b to c kind of connectedness (in fact, on the other end of the continuum, an overly connected poem is doomed to stasis and bores the reader). I think we do need a way to enter and stay with a poem, if only to finally appreciate it. How can we know a poem, if we can't read it? So, a basic sense of connectedness is necessary or it remains an inert pile of remnants. But consider the idea of remains in general, or ruins, and how much of our imagination is activated by what was there, what they came from, and how and why. Consider too, the idea of being haunted by the partial, how it evokes a sense of wholeness. I think the "theorists" you describe must be separated from the real poets and the only way to do it, is to discover the integrity of a whole vision behind the fragments. One thing I've discovered from my manuscript conferences is how much agreement there is among poet-readers regarding the success of particular poems from one poet, how clear it is to everyone, even though they don't know a poet's work previously, what "works" and what does not (something we discuss in re: to the poets' entire style and voice in the ms), what can be entered and what cannot, and having entered a poem, what keeps one reading. How much connectedness do we need in order to enter and stay with and perhaps come to appreciate a poem (if, in fact, the poem does turn out to be successful) is an important question, but not one solved with percentages. The idea that an incoherent poem reflects our incoherent lives is a worthless one in terms of actually coming to appreciate (or revise!) a poem--it's pretty much a "so what?" We do need a way to talk about the poems that move us by exploring edges, remnants and spaces that are ambiguous. As you know, a successful poem reaches you on a level you cannot articulate first, and the wish to articulate why comes later.

Thanks for your comments on this unruly subject.

Joan Houlihan said...

Gary, I don't know any "ordinary people" who read poetry other than those forced to do so (i.e. students). I think most readers of it are poets, or would-be poets. And some poets much prefer clarity--in their own poems as well as those of other poets. Clear poetry is definitely out there, and continues to be written, so I don't think the lack of readership has to do so much with the kind of poetry as the fact that it's poetry at all--and poetry is not a popular art form. Should it be more popular? I guess so, sure. Maybe poetry bees in the schools will help, and teaching it at earlier ages. Yes, posterity will determine the worth of one's work, but it would be nice to get a handle on it before we die, I think. ;-) As far as the separation of poem and puzzle--ok, maybe, but a poem without mystery is a bore. There is an interesting essay by Richard Wilbur on the subject called "Benign Obscurity" you might like. He discusses difficulty vs mystery in poems. Thanks for your comments!

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"There is an interesting essay by Richard Wilbur on the subject called "Benign Obscurity" you might like."

Did you mean Donald Justice?

Joan Houlihan said...


Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Well, Joan, I decided to take your wise counsel and read the essay "Benign Obscurity" by Donald Justice and so did a search. I discovered that after more than four years since the poor man's death and ten years after the article was published one must still subscribe to the 'New Criterion' in order to obtain it.
Considering that almost every word ever written on the planet is available for free on the internet this, IMHO, is shameful. It confirms every disparaging thing I've ever heard about that particular organization.
I wonder how Mr. Justice would feel about these people holding his work hostage and depriving the world of his words.

Lynne Potts said...

I read your with interest your blog pieces currently posted -- particularly the first one and the one discussing Matthea Harvey’s The Modern World. It was the comment about reading for a “wholeness” behind the poem that prompted me to write some of my thoughts. It seems to me this wholeness idea is the rub. The only way I can seem to make my resistence to such a notion is through an anology with the visual arts.

Something dramatic happened in the visual arts at the turn of the 20th century, from the 19th, that is.
Actually something else happened at the turn to the 21st, but looking at the 20th is enough. We can hardly imagine the initial shock when viewers began looking at Picasso and Braque, even though they should have been prepared by Matisse and Cezanne and a host predecessors. Still, they cried,
“What is happening!” The image has been “shattered.” As we know, that was only the beginning. What were they to think when Arthur Dove began painting and you could no longer say his paintings were people or guitars or rocks or anything recognizable. Then Stella, Hartmann, Stills, and heavens, Pollock! Dozens of others too. What was one to think!

Actually one couldn’t think in the old way any more. That was the point. There was no meaning underneath the surface of these paintings, no representation that would require a viewer’s interpretation. Like Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, they were just there. You couldn’t cipher them, decode them, reveal anything. It happened in music as well. When John Cage came along without phrasing or melody and when Steve Reich created works with nothing but repeated sounds of drums or trains or whatever -- what could one think! There was only this: a new way of receiving the total inarticulability of the world that these artists were expressing -- and you either got it or you didn’t.

Language is something else, I realize, as words seem to have two qualities seemingly impossible to separate: sounds with meaning sewed to the hems. Like Peter Pan, we like the two securely attached. But I think much of what is happening in poetry today has to do with the nature of that attachment just as it had to do with old “meanings” in music and the visual arts. I may have first recognized it reading John Barryman, but the music of his work is so compelling, one is tempted to gloss over “disconnects” as they occur. When I first read Susan Howe, (the one from Utah), however, who “shatters” the written word with lines and words like vectors across the page, I began to suspect what was happening. Then, of course Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, Michael Palmer and the new legions.

Sometimes the word “conceptual” has been used to describe this shift from representational to something else. But I don’t think that works. When you stand in front of a Franz Klein painting, you do not come up with a concept of what’s going on -- nor do you with a Matthea Harvey poem. It’s not about that kind of thinking. It’s more about unhinging the way you have been expected to understand in the past -- and feel something in a new way. Once you let go of those old expectations, you begin to hear and experience language in a new way. It’s crazy but it can be thrilling.

Lynne Potts

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Lynne, thanks for writing and sorry for the long delay in response. I don't see that we are in disagreement at all about what's been happening in the arts for the past few decades: the changes in art, music, literature, and so on have been going on and will continue to go on with the "representational" being replaced or at least added to by the abstract and elliptical in all areas of arts and entertainment, including theater, new media, film and television. As for poetry, surely you recall the "concrete" poetry of the 70s which was also filled with"disconnectedness," both of meaning and of typography (lots of vectors across pages, lots of visual impact, lots of word spraying). Experimentation has gone on and will go on and I suspect any disagreement we have is about the value of some of the resulting products. I keep meaning to buy and read Denis Dutton's "The Art Instinct" as it sounds like it would be quite germane to the discussion I keep hoping to have (about the way one can or cannot apprehend said products). I will, soon. Meanwhile, the discussion I keep hoping to have, the one where someone actually tells me what value there is in say, a poem from "Modern Life," or at least educates me on the way to read such poems, is a discussion that never happens. Instead, people tell me things like "It's crazy but it can be thrilling" and assume I'm living in the past or want my shadow attached to my hem at all times. Meanwhile, I go forth with my cracked lantern, looking for that one reader in the wilderness who can articulate with verve and clarity why I should care about poems that show no evidence of caring about the reader.