Monday, February 1, 2010

Challenge!: Find a good poem without an idea

My review of Personationskin by Karl Parker (No Tell Books) is up in the February issue of Open Letters. For some matrix of reasons, I initially had little to no interest in this book. I hadn't really heard anything about it, the cover was sort of unappealing, I don't know. But I picked it up idly one day (we get a lot of review copies) and read a few lines to sort of give myself permission to dismiss it. As it turns out I loved it. Karl Parker totally brings it in the idea dept.

Over at HTML Giant, the idea of the idea is being bandied about again; "Darby" (Darby Larson?) leaves this comment:
the problem i often have with ideas in art is that ideas are always either not new or too easily arguable so i prefer ideas in nonfic than in poems or fiction
I think part of the problem with this whole discussion is that "idea" is poorly defined. Darby's comment is so bizarre to me that I wonder if our definitions of "idea" are wildly different. My response to this comment:
  • If your concern is newness and its impossibility, ideas are the least of your worries. Most images are not new, most metaphors are not new. Avoiding ideas won't make your poems fresher. There's always the possibility that someone got to that line first.
  • An idea is not the same thing as an argument, something to be agreed or disagreed with. Sometimes an idea is just a concept (like more durable bubbles ... or tattoos for the inside of your eyelids), in which case, what is there to argue? The point is not do you agree, it's is this interesting, is it worth thinking about, does it add something to the poem.
Relegating ideas to nonfiction sounds like nonsense to me. (Does he mean evidence? Does he mean facts?) Are people really trying to write novels without any ideas? Some extreme form of lipogram?

I propose a challenge: Find a "good poem" that doesn't have any ideas in it. Either copy it into a comment, drop a link or email it to me and I'll post it myself. Confirmation bias aside, my prediction is that I'll either A) not like it or B) find an idea. But you might prove me wrong, and either way we'll probably all learn something. Go!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Umm, I am 99% sure he wasn't kidding. It's actually an excerpt from a longer comment which seemed by all indications serious/literal.


  3. KR: Darby, who posted the comment I excerpted. I was responding to Radish King's comment (which she must have had her reasons for removing).

    Francois: I haven't heard it, but I sort of think highly conceptual projects don't have to "include" ideas since they are ideas. I interpret Schwitters' project in general as conceptual/idea-driven.

  4. Regardless of whether a poem conveys ideas actively, via words/narrative, or passively-- that is, a non-word poem whose concept must be in interpreted-- a poem always contains an idea.

    Cf. the definition of idea.

    Words always convey ideas, provided one knows the language, and even if one doesn't know the language or the word-things are non-linguistic, there is an idea. Whether the reader "gets" the idea (as through a transfusion) the author wants to convey is another matter. Also, the idea a poem conveys (linguistically or non-linguistically-- by meaning/narrative or via concept/interpretation) may not be a good idea. It may be uninteresting or unoriginal, in which case it is not an "idea" in the "lightbulb went off in my head" sense, but it is still an idea in the "my brain had to work, if only a tiny bit" sense. Also a poem may or may not have a motif or theme, or an "idea" in the classical music sense, but this doesn't mean it doesn't convey an idea in words or by design.

  5. Just reinforcing that the definition of idea includes both 1. "Something, such as a thought or conception, that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity." (that is, the impression, thought, story, etc. that a poem leaves the reader with) and 2. "A plan, scheme, or method." (that is, the form of the thing). I would argue that all poems, whether linguistic or non-linguistic, narrative or non-narrative, experimental or non-experimental, or whatever other categories one wants to invent, have both these kind of ideas [to simplify, they convey concepts (ideas) through form (ideas)]; but even if someone wanted to argue that something like "Ursonate" did not convey idea type #1, it's inarguable that it conforms to idea type #2.

  6. Jessica, I agree, which is why I don't understand the claims made by some that they don't like ideas in poems (or art of any kind).

    Also: I never said "I want to see poems with ideas, period," I said I wanted to see *more* ideas ... but what I probably should have said is that I wanted to see more *complex* ideas.

  7. Once, far over the breakers,
    I caught a glimpse
    Of a white bird
    And fell in love
    With this dream which obsesses me.

    --poem by Yosano Akiko (Japan, 1878-1942), translated by Kenneth Rexroth

    The real question, for me, is whether the poem (or any given poem) contains a particular idea, or whether any ideas a reader believes it contains are ideas the reader has read into the poem.

  8. Falling in love with a dream (triggered by a white bird) seems like an idea to me. If the poem ended at "bird" it would just be an image with no (complex) idea attached. And I would give it the thumbs down on poem-hood.

    I don't actually think it's that subjective (in this case).

  9. i dont think i meant to say there are poems that have no ideas in them. we are probably thinking of 'idea' in different ways, i agree. any idea can be extrapolated from any poem depending on who is reading it. more i think i meant that i personally choose to not consider the ideas of poems as a preference. or at least i dont want to consider ideas at a level of clear comprehension, i want mystery to cloud things, i dont want to 'get' the idea of a poem, i want things to be elusive. thats all i really meant i think. so when i read a poem that feels like all idea clearly conveyed, i end up not liking it that much. there has to be something different about the way the idea comes at me for me to be engaged, and then its not about the idea, its how it came at me. this is all just me, i dont think everyone should read or enjoy poems like me.

  10. maybe also, what we are talking about is simple vs. complex ideas. i tend to prefer simple ideas and let the language be complex and have more freedom. i think the more complex an idea, the simpler the language needs to be to convey it clearly.

  11. Hi Darby,

    Who are some of your favorite writers? I.e., who is an example of someone you think writes well without openly presenting ideas?

    My preference, I think, is for a middle ground between totally open (I can take any idea I want from the poem) and totally closed (the ideas are already pre-figured-out for me, the reader). I want the writer to make some kind of complex connection without shutting out the possibility of other connections.

    Thanks for commenting--

  12. probably the lish/lutz/williams trio. certain williams pieces especially. a lot of barthelmes 60. again, whether they are presenting ideas, i dont know, i just feel like the language matters more than what its about, or that the ideas are more abstract. beckett, although i know most of beckett is fraught with idea, its more the way it comes at me that makes me less inclined to suss it out. i also have a curious interest in over-complexity, which i can get lost in, which maybe explains my interest in beckett and pynchon.

    theres a poem on my mind by rd parker in caketrain 7 called Aquamarine that strikes me as pretty close to idealess or atleast i read it that way.

  13. I love love love Diane Williams and Donald Barthelme so we're definitely talking at cross purposes to some degree. I feel like what's missing in their stories isn't ideas but traditional, linear narrative.

  14. i was trying to read clark coolidge awhile ago, and the poems were sort of fun to read i guess, but i just got tired of how alike they were, just sort of a tedious jumble of words every time. sure, the words all convey ideas, but it seems like a monkey could have typed it. not that i don't like that kind of thing.

  15. right, its not that ideas are missing, just buried. if its williams intent to convey a complex idea, why exclude a coherent narrative to explain it then? do people read williams in order to experience a complex, coherent idea? i jus prefer the sound of it all in all its dissonance.

  16. When I really love a piece of writing (poetry or prose) I can't separate the idea from the sound. They're inextricable.

  17. what's an example of a poem where idea and sound are inextricable. ;)

  18. Well take the Stevens example I posted in another thread -- the lines "One must have a mind of winter" and "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" sound beautiful, convey complex ideas and can't be paraphrased without losing a lot. In other words they are perfect lines.

  19. This might be another way of sound and ideas being inextricable:

    Traced Red Dot

    Hello I'm Jack Jerk
    I live with Molly Ringwald in a hutch
    the streets outside the Barleycorn Stretch
    they burst it all slims down to a point
    a golden gingerale of rockhewn source
    buy Grotex it helps your cusp
    always thought a corpse would tell me what to do
    skin pulling its surface moisture
    Barbizon sauce personality like a peanut
    just need a new parrot and sink a pressure capsule
    grotesque what happens to the lasted soul
    a bad mouth liver pills in short bursts
    maybe nothing but shirt in strong daylight
    a punk trains his fist on the green monkey
    it's Bruce Surtees capturing latent death
    stacked along contention lines black gleam salt
    he's now contented he saw his wrist
    rosy featured landschaft grass as a pointer
    this all comes from one hand's limited desk
    clear before the metal starts flying

    --Clark Coolidge

  20. Or this line by Justin Marks: "The day crawls by like a living document, the prettier for having forgotten me." It's an unforgettable line to me, certainly an idea, but beautiful and elusive, such that I don't really know what it means (in the sense that I cannot paraphrase it, and why would I?)

  21. i think we kind of agree with each other actually. i think we are thinking of 'idea' differently. what i took it to mean was something very clear and coherent in an almost logical sense. like science (since that's sort of my dayjob). something where the intent is to reach a state of comprehension. but it seems like you are saying things in favor of elusivity, which i dont take to mean that something is ideaful, but rather something that has a depth, that there is more happening in a line, be it intellectual or visceral, but may not be consciously obtainable.

  22. Yeah I think we agree more than our vocabulary initially led us to believe.

    I was mostly arguing against poetry that doesn't seem to do *any* intellectual work, but just stack up visual descriptions. Poetry (to me) isn't just about sight/depicting a scene, it has to engage me on other levels.

  23. I'm stuck on the idea thing. I'm sticking with my "I just don't like reading poets who don't have anything worth unpacking unpack it all, anyway" argument. Because, actually, I'm reading Fanny Howe's The Lives of a Spirit, and it's clearly unpacked. But Fanny Howe can talk all over the damned page and I'll follow her. So maybe if all you have to unpack is clever, cute, or coy, littered with pop culture references, or written like the lyrics of an Andrew Bird song, I'm not interested. Much as I love Andrew Bird.

    I think anyone could go back and read my work-- especially my work written a few years ago-- and say, "Uh... this is cute, coy, and clever." Yep. The truth is that I, myself, can't really stand to read some of that work now. I like that I sometimes get emails telling me they really enjoyed such-and-such, and I think, "But I don't write that way, anymore."

    I think that's just part of evolving, artistically. As an "artist," I find myself seeking works that ooze with self-containment (is that even a word? --it is now!), because that is what I am attracted to in "life." I do not want to read poetry that asks too many questions-- questions that I don't care if they ever get answered-- or too me-me-me or too absurd or not grounded enough in reflection. And when a poem IS grounded in reflection (or my own personal reading of that--), I want conclusiveness, not open-ends. I understand some poets write BECAUSE of these open-ends. That's what inspires them, and that's where the pose their best lines. But it all just ends up reading like clutter to me. Like overhearing someone's conversation that I can't really get interested in, despite the fact that anyone else around me would find it "scandalous" or "hilarious."

    And, aesthetically, I'm still more drawn to the pared-down and minimal. Everywhere. I'm an "enjoy the little things" kinda gal. :-)

  24. PS-- I can't quite remember what the original context was-- but no, I don't think a poet comes off as an asshole when they have statements/conclusions in their poems.

    And, if a poet is going to work more in open-ends ("abstractions" --how I'm defining the term, here), I think it's even MORE important that they go pared-down. At least, where my own attention span is on the line. ;-)

  25. Brooklyn, I'm curious—who are some "conclusive" poets that you like?

  26. I will find examples this week and post them to my blog. "Conclusive" being the wrong word to stress-- "self-containment" and "declarative statements being more where I'm going with that." I mention "conclusiveness" in reference to my earlier comment about how I would rather read poems where the poet has ALREADY tied up loose ends before sitting down to doodle their way around a poem.

    Also-- on "unpacked" --when I was overseas, I read Paterson and it made me cry, I loved it so much. That book is the mothertrucker of unpacked.

    It just has to be done "right," is all I'm saying. And by "right," I mean, "something -I- interested in reading about." And I'm just rarely interested in reading "unpacked."

  27. Looking forward to your post(s), Brooklyn! I love when people use real examples instead of just saying "I like when this happens," "I don't like when this happens," and we're all forced to conjure up an imaginary poem on the spot. The problem with negative examples, I guess, is that people are afraid of shit-talking. But we can at least all post stuff we LIKE, right? Right.

  28. I can find examples of what I don't like without shit-talking. There's plenty of it out there, and I know I'm in the minority of disliking certain types of poetry, and I don't mind prefacing my post with a "Nothing personal because I don't know any of these poets and I'm not hating on them-- I just don't like their poetry and as part of a even-keel, thoughtful conversation, I don't mind telling you why--" disclaimer. I'm not one of those people who think there's no place for negative reviewing in Poetry, as along as the reviewer can try to stay on the high ground with it. (Apologies if any of you are.) :-)

    Also-- I agree. It's best to illustrate with an actual poem, and I appreciate that you take the time to do that on your blog, E. My brain is usually too scattered-- unless you wanted Lorine Niedecker making all my points for me. :-)

  29. Awesome, I'm glad you feel comfortable doing that. Can't wait! Also I like negative reviews. :)

  30. Elisa,

    I'm not sure I would want to use this very loose definition of conceptualism (yes, yes, I know, it takes me a while to respond). Otherwise, there is no such thing as a poem without ideas (cf. Jessica's use of the definition of ideas and Wilfrid Sellars' criticism of foundationalist epistemology and of the myth of the given)

  31. I think there's "no such thing as a poem without ideas" only insofar as words by definition represent ideas. But that's a sorta boring conversation to have. My original point was that there are many poems being written by amateur poets with no complex ideas, poems based solely on description.

    I think the vast majority of poems are *not* conceptual or meta in any way, they are just attempts at communication or perhaps "artfulness."

  32. Post 2 of 2: In that sense, I can’t buy into the idea that the poem submitted to this discussion by Lyle Daggett would be too simple if it ended at “bird.” By another logic, I can see it as much better if it ends with “bird.” After “bird,” we get a fear of simplicity compensated for by desperate, faux complex explanation. If we stop with bird, we get a suggestive (complex, if you must) suspension that invites us to metaphor instead of going on, as the later part of the poem goes on, to wring out the sponge of metaphor and try to constrict its meaning. Ideas in poems are not free of metaphor; nothing is. But emotionally they sometimes suggest a fear of metaphor’s slipperiness, a nervous effort to limit what metaphor can do. A more idealess poem (impossible literally, but possible as metaphor) can keep metaphor suspended in its own metaphoricity.

    I hope I haven’t too much crashed this party, and I won’t expect anyone to agree with anything here, if anyone even reads responses to old responses. You just started a good conversation and so, after much procrastination, I joined. I don’t know any of you, including Darby (though in the interest of full disclosure I’ll say that I’m guessing Darby is the editor named Darby who accepted—thank you!—my second and more or less just as crazy published poem), but I enjoyed your discussions. Thanks much.

  33. Post 1 of 2 (I might have done something wrong, so that these posts appear in the wrong sequence—sorry!): Hello. I stumbled on this discussion while looking for something else. Thanks much to Elisa Gabbert for provoking our questions and curiosities. I am the hopeless author of “Aquamarine,” the poem here alleged to be without ideas. What a kick to stumble on that reading of the poem. I think it’s a great reading of the poem. But it was my first published poem, and the editor, in the kindest way, wanted to make changes, which I mostly went along with. I figured the poem was spoofing the concept of authorship anyway, so why not forfeit my preferences and go along with a little collective authorship. The upshot is, “Aquamarine” was much more idea-less before the editor revised it. So I’m writing now to stand by Darby and gently disagree with those who say that we can’t have poems without ideas, and that instead it’s about whether the ideas are simple and complex. Sorry, but to my thinking that simple vs. complex thing has gotten so cliché that it’s gone vapid—without an idea, so to speak. Our blogger here, who is wonderfully inviting of ideas, which fits the topic, supposes that all language has ideas, and therefore that Darby must be wrong to suppose we can have a poetry without ideas. I’d like to back Darby by angling things a little differently. The idea of a poem without ideas is an idea, or let’s say a metaphor. It represents an aspiration and a parody. It doesn’t mean, unmetaphorically, that there are no ideas. Yes, a poem without ideas would be impossible. But it’s also not about complexity vs. simplicity. Simplicity is a complex idea, and complexity is a simple idea. Simplicity and complexity are angles, choices made by readers about how to read and how to categorize strategies of reading, not truths intrinsically inside the poem and defining the poem or defined by the poem. You can read the simplest poem (a supposedly simple poem) in a complex way, and the most complex poem (a supposedly complex poem) in a simple way, and you can project those readings onto the poem as if they rested intrinsically within the poetic object.

  34. I'm not sure I follow your argument, but I'll reiterate that I was looking for a *good* poem without ideas, not just any poem without ideas. I haven't read "Aquamarine," so I can't comment on it. If you read back over my idea series I outlined a lot of different ways that poems can convey ideas, one of which was meta ideas (i.e. conceptual poetry). I don't think my conception of ideas in poetry is as simplistic as you think it is.

    Thanks for commenting---