While studying aleatory effects in contemporary poetry and photography for an essay on John Ashbery and Robert Frank I have struggled to find a way into my own poetics. When I slump at my desk and wrestle with placing one word after another I’m unaware of or indifferent to larger issues. In writing about other people’s work I can usually find a way to negotiate between their poetics and the larger implications of their work, but have found it difficult to do with my own practice. Recently, however, several editors have asked me questions about my poetry. While composed hastily, with little of the critical reflection I apply when reviewing or analyzing the work of others, my answers seem to offer some commonality of stance and purpose. These three statements are among my offhand responses.
- My poetry explores the seams and gaps between the world our bodies live in and the cloud our minds occupy. Reality and imagination, in Stevens’ terms: but I reject the notion that what lies outside the body is more real than what lives in the mind. The ideal poem would in every line, sentence, and phrase juxtapose those two worlds and force them to fight to a draw. The actual poems I write—lacking the power to fulfill my own ideal—struggle fitfully from one competing notion of the real to another. Images flex, break, collapse into other images. Little dramas lead somewhere or nowhere. Two people, often, offer competing notions of the space they jointly occupy, and terminate dangling in a vacuum. Sometimes the poem learns something, a temporary stay against the muddle of the quotidian. Often it doesn’t go far enough to properly conclude. The tension between the line and the sentence—a stock property of English-language poetry for centuries—takes the form not of free verse but of rough accentual verse, descended from the venerable ballad meter of the late middle ages. Or I surrender to the flux and write a prose poem, which like an amoeba struggles to draw a boundary between its own form and the formless world.
- Language is our defining species characteristic. Not that other creatures don’t use a form of language, but ours is the most elaborate, abstract, and symbolic. Poetry has to be, first and perhaps foremost, an ongoing lesson in using language responsibly and with a view to enriching human experience. Some of my poems engage this topic more or less directly. “Spring Steel Trap” links the abuse of the natural world to the abuse of language—the scholar and the trapper, while not directly comparable, each greedy for prey and lacking the objectivity to fully appreciate nature and culture without trying to possess them. “The H in Hollywood” is about the idiocy of attempting to dominate the world through the abuse of language (erecting a huge wooden sign high in the hills to impress the world below), while “Fresh-Water Pirates” mocks the simple-minded parasitism we inflict on each other and the world. I don’t know that any of these deserves to be called a work of consequence, but I believe that all serious human effort is consequential, especially the arts.
- I think the purpose of poetry is to educate our imaginations, and therefore it should be primarily imaginative—not journalistic, autobiographical, etc. I don’t mean that elements of the actual can’t be in it—but I like to see the actual challenged by the imagined. I want to see the imagination confront and change depictions of external reality. Like Wallace Stevens, I’m interested in the way imagination and reality place pressure on each other. But that’s topical. Aesthetically, I prefer accentual verse to free verse, and have a soft spot for the prose poem, whatever that is. I like Anglo-Saxon words, sharp consonants, and shorter lines, although I much admire Whitman’s facility with the long free verse line, something I could never do.
Reviewing these responses, faced with the task of justifying or at least accounting for my fifty years of effort in an unforgiving and thankless art, I find that I’ve taken refuge in the romantic notion of the poem as an expression of the conflict between the imagination and the world. This couldn’t be formulated until Kant, Schilling, Coleridge, Emerson and other late eighteenth and early nineteenth post-Enlightenment figures generated the modern concept of the imagination as a distinct mental force with the ability to process and combine our perceptions and reconcile us with the world outside of ourselves. That I have difficulty, without the filter of poetry, in resolving my relationship with the world should be obvious. But this is the modern and postmodern dilemma, common to most even moderately reflective people. Not everyone finds poetry an appropriate or useful means of coping. Other arts, other occupations may serve as well. But because poetry is made of language it cuts to the bone, exposing the gap between the way we think and the means by which we express thought and perception. This gap is my subject, and the attempt to generate imagery to embody that distinction is the basis of my poetics.
Each of these three statements addresses the central issue; each also addresses a specific quality of language or poetry. The first mentions rhythm: the sound of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and the accentual rhythm also derived from that ur-source. The second comments on the social-cultural functions of language. The third also refers to accentual rhythm, shorter lines, and Anglo-Saxon words. But do my poems embody these rhythmic and linguistic desiderata and use them to effect useful social and cultural ends, as the second statement argues?
In reply to a specific question, the second statement mentions three poems (all appearing in 2015 in Upenders, a web journal) as examples of the socially responsible or at least conscientious use of language. “Spring Steel Trap,” the first of these, is a relatively recent poem triggered by a specific external event: a trapper wrote, for the local newspaper, a letter claiming that trapping is a “compassionate” activity, that trappers love animals, and that traps are designed for the “comfort” of the animal. Although these absurdities deserved a fact-based reply (and no other would make sense to the letter writer), they also sparked an imaginative response, one that substitutes lyric drama for polemic:
Spring Steel Trap
Midwinter. The gnawed carcass
of a woodchuck, out of season,
lies before a bedrock extrusion
where a gray fox has denned. I note
the location, and on my snowshoes
pivot back toward the village
where I’ll settle over latte
and an arrogant new novel
by someone I’d hate to meet.
The woods sigh and sough and even
sob a little as the wind picks up.
Halfway back I find a trap
with a torn woodchuck leg in it.
The fox beat the trapper to prey,
but the human would have discarded
the woodchuck, a useless pelt.
When I thought I was a scholar
I thought poems and novels were prey.
Stooping over them with open pores
I absorbed their precious fluids
and tossed the half-gnawed carcasses
back onto the shelf. Maybe
the gray fox is saving the rest
of the woodchuck for dinner tonight.
I could hide in a copse of hemlock
and try to photograph the creature,
catch it with a flash as it snacks.
But trundling home in the dark
doesn’t tempt me, so I slog off
with senses tingling, and appeal
to the winter light to buoy me
the last mile before the shadows
take charge. Then the books I failed
to adequately love would return,
word by word, surfing over me
to distract me from my own shadow
dissolving in the twilit snow.
The questions we might ask of this poem are whether its rhythm and word choice meet the standards I’ve posed, and whether its aleatory qualities add to or distract from its overall effect. The rhythm is simple accentual rhythm with three or four stressed syllables per line:
The woods sigh and sough and even
sob a little as the wind picks up.
Halfway back I find a trap….
The lines are neither particularly iambic nor trochaic, so rather than syllable-stress we are dealing strictly with accentual verse. This is a less disciplined versions of the verse of the Anglo-Saxon and ballad traditions, the meter that Ted Hughes (following Gerard Manley Hopkins) identifies as the true rhythm of English-language poetry. Whether the rhythm is effective here or even adequate to the poem is difficult for me to judge, but I can at least assert that it meets the stated criterion. The emphasis on Anglo-Saxon words is more a matter of emphasis than word count. The accented words in most lines are one-syllable consonant-heavy words, although some lines accent more Latinate words. The issue of the tension between line and sentence is a matter of syntax, and in this instance, at least, passages like
But trundling home in the dark
doesn’t tempt me, so I slog off
with senses tingling….
with their strong enjambments seem to catch the desired effect.
So what are the aleatory effects? In my first statement I describe them as a wrestling between the interior world of the imagination and the world outside the self: “The ideal poem would in every line, sentence, and phrase juxtapose those two worlds and force them to fight to a draw.” Obviously this poem does not meet that ideal, but it does juxtapose imagination and actuality through the familiar tactics of metaphor (“When I thought I was a scholar / I thought poems and novels were prey”) and through the larger strategy of moving between the world of nature and the world of books. Trapping becomes an overlay of metaphor on the act of reading. In a poetic era shaped by Language Poetry and the aleatory acrobatics of John Ashbery this metaphorical structure may seem too tidy and straightforward. Ashbery and I have a common ancestor in Wallace Stevens, but his work embraces the even more radical divergences of modernist French poetry (as evinced by his recently published anthology of translations), and the unkempt jokiness of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara—two poets I also admire, but whose jauntiness I have never comfortably absorbed.
But aside from the extreme aleatory effects of Ashbery’s recent work and the syntactical dislocations of Language Poetry there are other ways for poetry to embrace contingency. The most basic is in the operations of the imagination. Bringing things together that don’t belong together in the outer world has always been a key function of the imagination, as Coleridge formulates it. Trapping and book-learning don’t go well together in the quotidian world, but this poem crushes them together like fissionable material in a bomb. The result is not so dramatic, or drastic, but the poem does at least create a space in which these incompatibles can confront and pressure each other.
What of “useful social and cultural ends”? How do we determine if a poem bears some function in the world outside of the specialized literary space poetry seems now to inhabit? The art for art’s sake notion still functions. If I didn’t believe that poetry was a worthwhile end in itself I would hardly bother with it, since there are many more direct ways to engage with the world beyond the self. Still, I want to believe that my work at least bears the potential to effect some consideration or awareness of the conditions in which we live. “Spring Steel Trap” in its literal reading refers to the cruelty of trapping and its distorted relationship to nature. But in simple prose I could have editorialized more directly about this obsolescent and abusive practice. The people who need to consider banning or at least better regulate trapping are legislators and fish and game officials who are not likely to read a poem like “Spring Steel Trap,” and who certainly would not take it into consideration in legislating changes in the game laws. Yet unlike most of my poems it engages with a specific issue that bears social, cultural, and political consequences. What of poems that involve no such immediately applicable material?
“The H in Hollywood,” the second poem to which my second statement refers, I describe as a protest against the abuse of language. Is that claim valid or useful?
The H in Hollywood
From the rear, the H
in the famous Hollywood sign
still spells H but propped by two
tree trunks, one with crosspieces
nailed for steps. I’d climb
at least as far the cross-arm
of the box-framed wooden H
but am afraid of falling deep
into Los Angeles sprawled
in muddled gray tones below.
This sign read “Hollywoodland”
long ago before memory
burned off the “land” the way
wildfires regularly burn the hills.
Peering through that flammable brush
I feel tall enough to span
the basin in a single stride,
but I’d probably trip on the H
and bring down whole worlds with me.
This poem relies on a specific physical perspective. Viewed from the rear, the H is still an H, but its constructive framework is exposed. Also this angle encompasses the huge space beyond, the Los Angeles basin. The poem invokes the history of the sign itself, which was erected by a land speculator to advertise his proposed development. The speaker imagines himself climbing the flimsy structure and falling into the view, the real world beyond the symbolic one invoked by a sign that no longer functions as intended. Language is composed of signs that often do not retain their original functions but work in new or differing ways. Keeping track of the changes in our semiotic world requires constant attention and possibly a certain degree of risk. Fouling up the language, misreading or abusing signs, could bring down the linguistic world on which we depend for almost everything we are and do. Most people don’t remember or never knew that this sign originally read “Hollywoodland.” Does it matter now? Only if we elect to honor history and memory. If we don’t, then perhaps there will be consequences, but that possibility lies beyond the poem, out there in the deep view of the city lying below. Is it useful to invoke so indirectly my concerns about the use and abuse of language, the possible loss of linguistic and semiotic history? Language changes constantly, and in this age of instant communication it changes more rapidly and unpredictably than ever. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly an issue of which we should be aware.
My third example is the most complex, since this poem seems more fanciful than imaginative, and asks the reader to at least temporarily suspend expectations of serious purpose.
Fresh-water pirates, we prowl
river complex looting barges
and pleasure craft. No one resists.
Police refuse involvement.
The big slow rivers sprawl
past villages where bibles snort
and huff at sinners. Railroads
and highways soar on bridges
that glint in the pink sundown
and link one state to another
in a muddle of jurisdictions.
Our big powerboat hustles
among smaller, shyer craft
and we fuel at docks where no one
dares ask us to pay. Our flag,
black and orange and sporting
the face of a friendly housecat,
has become so famous a hundred
imitations fly on other boats.
Our loot piles up. Money, jewelry,
expensive liquor. Our victims
are usually too drunk to complain.
The thick brown current plods along
to New Orleans, where a fence
will cash our loot, file our tax forms,
and arrange to sell our boat.
This has been a great vacation.
The smell of river has embalmed us
against the ache of the future,
and we’ve left our many victims
unharmed but fueled with stories.
Their friends will envy the rush
of drama and long boozy nights
humming with cosmic energy,
and every tale will end with handshakes
as we, the mysterious pirates,
depart with our manners intact.
My assertion that “’Fresh-Water Pirates’ mocks the simple-minded parasitism we inflict on each other and the world” stumbles on the term “simple-minded.” The most destructive parasitism is ecological, economic, social, and cultural all at once. The huge and growing disparity between the very rich and most of the rest of the world’s human population is a complicated matter involving the very nature of capital (capital is restless, noted Marx) and government—transcending the distinctions between democracies and non-representative governments. No use appealing to the forces of law and order (“Police refuse involvement”), since this injustice is embedded so deeply in law and order that it cannot be rooted out through those means. Besides, this poem makes light of thievery. Piracy here is “a great vacation,” a break from routine reality. It has harmed no one, and ends with mutual courtesies. Loot piles up, but no one suffers in any obvious way. If it continued, of course, the pirates would get everything, and the victims might finally notice that they’ve been victimized. Nothing simple-minded is going on here; rather a crime so cunning in its innocuous charm that its victims seem to enjoy being victimized. What does this say about our current economic world in which one percent of the population absorbs most of the money and property, leaving the rest of us teetering on impoverishment?
But again, it is doubtful whether the playfulness of this poem is as effective in its social utility as an editorial would be. So why write it? The real function of the poem—any poem— is aesthetic, rooted in its imagery, its drama and humor, its gnashing of linear rhythm and syntax. That is, if we regard it as a poem and not a manifesto. It is not quite a manifesto, and neither are the other two poems. Describing these poems in terms of their consequences conceals rather than affirms their aleatory or contingent structures, their arbitrary mixing of elements from the real world and the world of the imagination. They do not flaunt their aleatory effects the way an Ashbery poem would, but they depend equally on the juxtaposing of elements from competing worlds.