Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Poem and the Idea, Part 4: Beyond Sense

In a post by Sina Queyras on the PoFo blog called "Poetry is..." I found this quote I like very much (which doesn't seem to exist anywhere else on the Internet), attributed to Todd Swift: "Poetry is any use of language that somehow exceeds sense with strangeness and style."

I'm not ready to adopt this as my personal definition of poetry, as it seems to both include and exclude too much for the sake of quotability, but I love the phrase "somehow exceeds sense," in that it suggests an arrangement of language not that makes no sense, but that makes more sense than you can fully perceive at once. I've been interested for a long time in that which can barely be grasped -- the stars you can only see in your peripheral vision, but which disappear in your direct line of sight; sounds so high-pitched, you only perceive them as discomfort and not an actual noise.

I've felt this while reading Bill Knott. Here are a couple of short ones from The Unsubscriber.

A kite in the shape
of a map floats
over the land it depicts,

but at night no one sees
its roads at the end
of which a child feels

his hand tugged upward,
in salutations.



The spirit drifts as if
a bubble were after it--
a bubble is after it:
I'm all the foam froth

that's left, and I'm
about to pop
in this pursuit. Perhaps
when a seeker dies,

his prey's position
is fixed then

on the charts
of our quantum ocean?
The spirit drifts, uncaught.
I like when poems seem to come to ideas through language. It's as though by virtue of the comparison having occurred to the poet ("The spirit drifts as if / a bubble were after it"), the comparison becomes literally true. (There's some linguistic term for an utterance that effects the stated outcome, e.g. "I now pronounce you man and wife.") I'm not sure these poems feel wholly complete/satisfying to me, but they're a hell of a lot more interesting than the average haiku.

Probably my favorite nonsense/beyond-sense poem is this one by Wallace Stevens (someone told me what it means once, which I choose to ignore):

The cock crows
But no queen rises.

The hair of my blonde
Is dazzling,
As the spittle of cows
Threading the wind.

Ho! Ho!

But ki-ki-ri-ki
Brings no rou-cou,
No rou-cou-cou.

But no queen comes
In slipper green.
I've been getting a similar "ideas through language" vibe from Karyna McGlynn's I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, which has to be one of the best titles in the past ... ever. She does fascinating things with language, as in "It Wasn't Phenomenal, She Followed the Phone Poles Up & Up": "she just kept walking / til it wasn't so choke and violet / to weird her the farmhouse didn't have a phone" -- or "Erin with the Feathered Hair: "I know: it's hot and I never left. / She runs to my closet and cuts all the necks out, / never asked and never will, / would I like a red cigarette? [...] I can iron out my voice, but still / I am field stock, body a rebar." Her poems remind me of sleeptalking, or when you try to read in a dream. It's like every fourth word goes flibberty-jabby.

I woke up early. I have to go to some kind of memorial after-party.


  1. please note the offer on my facebook page/art blog ...

  2. I've spent the last month fighting the temptation to buy I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl on the strength of the title alone; is this an Official Recommendation?

  3. In his book Illusion and Reality Christopher Caudwell says that one of the essential characteristics of poetry is that it can't be paraphrased.

    He listed other characteristics also, and I wouldn't limit the definition of poetry to that one quality, but I agree that it's one of the qualities that defines poetry. This seems to me related, a little, to the "somehow exceeds sense."

    I believe strongly that poetry can't be reduced to a paraphrase of itself, and that any attempt to do so effectively negates the poetry itself. (I find it almost impossible to read most literary criticism and literary theory.)

    Probably my favorite poetry book title, one that's been around for a while, and even though it's a little grim-sounding, is the early one by Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.

    Although I have difficulty with most literary criticism and theory, there are some writers whose criticism and theory writing I do really like and will seek out; for instance, Robert Bly, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Lorca, Susan Sherman, Adrienne Rich (sometimes), Audre Lorde, Basho, and Thomas McGrath. And there are certainly individual pieces of writing by other people that I've liked.

  4. Tricia: Well I picked my copy up at the library, risk-free. :) I haven't read the whole thing yet, but so far I think it's very good and the poems deserve more attention than I'm able to give them on my 10-minute train commute.

    Lyle: I've always felt that too, that poetry can't be paraphrased, but it complicates translation, since translation almost always involves some paraphrasing, since most languages don't have a one to one vocabulary (and certainly not syntax). Does that mean poetry is what's "lost in translation"?

  5. That Wallace Stevens was nice to see again, thanks. It's one of too many I never seem to remember.

    And it's from 1923 (or 1918, in its original publication), sheesh!

  6. 1918! Still feels so fresh and so clean-clean.

  7. " . . . so fresh and so clean-clean."

    That's exactly perfect, the doubled "c" of clean-clean, which fits so with the sounds of the poem . . .

  8. I too really like the Stevens' poem you've posted; thanks for including it within your musings!

    Adam Strauss