Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Epiphanies versus profound thoughts

Marjorie Perloff, in a (probably) interesting essay (that I haven't read in full) from the Boston Review, diagnoses the typical "prize-winning, 'well-crafted' poem ... that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the 'good jobs' advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs" like so:
Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject ... the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.
I am generally sympathetic to this critique of sameness in poetry, though one is less subjected to sameness if one chooses to read, say, Action Books titles versus The New Yorker. But certainly, this is the kind of poem that tends to end up in Ploughshares and in collections that win the National Book Award (though simply writing these kinds of poems is not enough; one must also display pedigree).

But I tripped on the part where she says "the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany," seeming to equate the two. To my mind, there's a distinct difference between an epiphany and a profound thought. A poem may need to manufacture an epiphany or pseudo-epiphany to qualify as well-crafted/prize-winning, but it seems to me that the poems in any given issue of The New Yorker are seriously lacking in profound thoughts. In fact I think most poems could benefit from more profound thoughts (AKA good ideas).

So what's the difference between an epiphany and a profound thought? Here's my differentiating criteria:

  • Epiphanies, almost by definition ("a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something"), are closed. They usually come at the end of the poem (the poet creates the illusion of having arrived at the epiphany by way of writing the poem; the reader arrives at the same epiphany by reading it), and make claims toward truth ("essential meaning"), so they are presented as final in two senses.
  • A profound thought ("having intellectual depth and insight"), on the other hand, can occur anywhere and need not aspire toward truth. The most profound lines of poetry to me are more like questions, or little bits of thought that tend to spiral out into more complex connected thoughts. I think profound thoughts open up a poem, rather than close it down.
  • Poets may shy away from putting thoughts or ideas in their poems because they worry those thoughts won't be seen as profound. Epiphanies, on the other hand, are usually personal. They're more like opinions that can't be proved or disproved. As Wolfgang Pauli would say, they're "not even wrong."
Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples. I opened up a recent New Yorker expecting to find some epiphany poets but, improbably, the featured poets were John "What's an Epiphany" Ashbery, with the flarf-like poem "Resisting Arrest," and Virginia Konchan, whom I always already love because she once reviewed my book (Thanks Virginia!). 

Virginia's poem, "Love Story," actually begins with what I would call a profound thought, even though it's personal: "My body has never been my body." This line is open because it invites questioning, interpretation, even denial. Logically, it's false (A always equals A), but poetically, it can be "true," since poems often hinge on the polysemy of words or phrases. In other words, "my body" has multiple meanings, and the first instance of "my body" in this line may differ semantically from the second instance.

Another recent New Yorker does manage to supply an epiphany poem: "Interrogation" by Yusef Komunyakaa. The poem begins, per Perloff, with description and "extravagant metaphor":
He picks till it grows
into a tiny butterfly,
a transfigured bee-
shaped wound,
& then into a secret icon
filled with belief,
bloody philosophy,
& a drop of stardust. 
A moment of half-
dead radiance
pulses on his skin
till his mouth closes
on a phrase in Latin,
& he wonders if an oath
leaves a scar.
It goes on for three more stanzas, and the sixth and final stanza contains the big epiphany:
He lifts the scab
with a fingernail,
till the almost healed
opens its little doubtful
mouth of resignation,
till he can gaze down
into himself & see
where eternity begins.
This sentence (each stanza in Komunyakaa's poem contains a single sentence, FYI) feels more shut down than the opening sentence in Virginia Konchan's poem in part because it's the final sentence in the poem; it feels less interesting because "eternity" is more of an abstraction than "my body," and because "where eternity begins" sounds like a cliche even if it isn't one, sounds like vaguely numinous bullshit (see also "a drop of stardust").

I don't want to go on record, however, as believing all epiphanies are bad. There is some overlap between epiphanies and profound thoughts. See "You must change your life" and other Rilke-isms; "Childhood Stories" by Matthew Rohrer. In general, I'll take profundities wherever they come. If you have a profound thought, please, by all means, express it (in a poem or otherwise).

Hat tip to Sandra Simonds for calling my attention to Perloff's essay.


  1. Virginia Konchan is someone I actually once met at a party!

    I think I agree with you on the substance of this though maybe not on the purely lexical point. If you define a "profound thought" as a striking juxtaposition of general/abstract words, then certainly these can be used in poetically interesting ways. (Though obviously there is a danger of cliche/shtick even here: I have never seen an automated Wallace Stevens poem generator but there is clearly a template to much of his later work.) I think what Perloff dislikes is the recipe aspect of the contemp. "well-made poem." I don't feel her pain: most poems written at any time are generic crap, different ages just produce different patterns of generic crap. It seems that the now-fashionable pattern has an epiphany tacked on at the end (the Komunyakaa one is vile but not atypical) rather than a profound thought tacked on at the beginning, so epiphanies are often worse nowadays... I'm not entirely sure this says anything about epiphanies as a poetic device.

    1. Yes to this: "most poems written at any time are generic crap, different ages just produce different patterns of generic crap."

      I suppose I'm trying to argue against a kind of overcorrection I sometimes see happening in poetry that is often seen as being in opposition to (whether or not it's intentionally a reaction to) workshop-ready/"well-crafted"/New Yorker poems, wherein poets are so wary of epiphanies they avoid all signs of profundity whatsoever. I scoff at formulaic poems with faux-profundity-type endings as much as the next blogger, but I think it goes too far to throw all profound thoughts out with the bathwater. (By "profound" I just mean the straight denotation as quoted above from Merriam Webster.) Personally, I go to poetry as much for "profound thoughts" as for beautiful/inventive language.

  2. I shouldn't allow myself to get involved in narratives of decline for fields I don't know much about, but for some reason I do.

    I also read Simonds's post, where she said:
    To give you an idea, one of my professors (someone I should say who I consider a friend and someone, furthermore, I admire) from graduate school says that poetry should be understood by a six-year old and if a six-year old doesn’t get it, then the poet has a problem with a poem he or she has made. Now, I don’t espouse this view, but it certainly sheds light on the behind-the-scenes ideology of some professors writing in this day and age.

    I can sort of understand this as a useful personal discipline. If my poem cannot be understood by a six-year-old, perhaps that means it is less clear than it could be while preserving what's valuable about it. But as a final judgment it seems way off; there are many values to pursue apart from comprehension by six-year-olds; etc.

    1. That is completely over the top. Is there any discipline, artistic or non-, that holds itself to that kind of standard? I don't think I even fully understood Shel Silvertstein when I was 6. Age 6 is when most people learn to read, period. And the typical 6-year-old doesn't understand basic concepts like sex and death yet.

    2. Indeed. I would roll my eyes even if the figure were 18 years, let alone 6.

    3. Yeah, I mean, are they talking about vocabulary and syntax or the actual conceptual meaning of a poem? It's stupid no matter how you slice it. He/she is basically arguing for a poetics of zero nuance.

  3. I think that the spirit of the six-year-old statement is that at least part of a poem's value increases with respect to how accessible it it. Another, perhaps more generous understanding of this might be that the professor believes that "poetry is for everyone" or something like this--that it's not just for academics or people w/ phds.

    1. I think it's hard to think of poems, though, beyond nursery rhymes, that would be completely understood by 6-year-olds (and even then they are usually full of references that children miss). It's one thing to aim for accessibility among general readers, but children too? I just can't imagine how that would even be done.

  4. I just don't really understand why "accessibility" in poetry is something that's so valued by the mainstream poetry world/ lit journals etc. I've been trying to think about that a bit.

    1. I feel like it comes from the same place as conservative rhetoric about "elitism." It's also just a way of pushing off responsibility: "If I don't understand your poem, it's your fault, not mine."

    2. I think it's basically a corny do-goody idea that poetry can save the world, like a religion.

  5. "Tristan Tzara said: 'Poetry is for everyone.' And Andre Breton called him a cop and expelled him from the movement. Say it again: 'Poetry is for everyone.' Poetry is a place and it is free to all...."--Burroughs. I never tire of spreading this quotation around.

    1. Poetry is for everyone, within limits. It's not for newborns. The six-year-old cutoff was an odd choice, as arbitrary distinctions go.

      The whole point, or most of the point, of my "Technique is racist" post was that poetry is *more* for everyone, not less, if we have all kinds of poems and all kinds of poetries -- some that can be understood by six-year-olds and some that will mean nothing to a six-year-old but will stimulate intelligent adults. There can be poems for people who have read a lot of poetry, even! There's room.

  6. You could just as easily say that oysters are for everyone, or that accordion music is for everyone. Sure, they're for everyone, but not everyone will like them.

    I think the accessibility thing, in recent times, started in part as a reaction against poetry that was (or that some people felt to be) too obscure, too buried in literary or mythological references, too caught up in academic details, too self-absorbed, not relevant to very much outside the interior world of the poet's own psyche.

    Accessible isn't the same as simplistic, and it's not the same as easy. Accessible means there's a way in. The Himalayas are accessible, but you have to know how, you have to know what you're doing or you could fall off a mountain.

    Anybody can take a painting or drawing class, and many of the people who do may learn to paint or draw with some amount of proficiency, but it's not likely that they will all become Rembrandt or Van Gogh or Hiroshige or Georgia O'Keeffe. Writing poetry can seem, sometimes, easier than it is, because the medium of poetry is language, and people use language all the time. Language feels familiar, even if poetry doesn't.

    And because language feels familiar, it can be harder, I think, for a beginner at poetry writing to distinguish a poem that's any good from a poem that's generic beginner-level stuff. It takes practice, it takes tuning the ear and eye, it takes work.

    1. it can be harder, I think, for a beginner at poetry writing to distinguish a poem that's any good from a poem that's generic beginner-level stuff

      Yes, I was trying to explain to a coworker recently, unsuccessfully, that poetry isn't just some magic-pretty combination of words, it's a skill. Like I think there's this popular misconception that anyone can sit down and write a good poem, but you wouldn't say the same thing about music.

  7. Komunyakaa's ending to that poem is interesting given how successfully his best known poem deliberately veers away from such an easy epiphany or "poetic" conclusion. The end of "Facing It":

    In the black mirror
    a woman's trying to erase names:
    No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

    1. Ah, the old "end on an image and don't explain" trick....

  8. "There's room." Yes, precisely. I love that Burroughs quotation because what happened to the atavistic 60s/70s idea that everyone is an artist, as in primeval cultures? Like hippies painting psychedelic dragons on VW Beetles, playing acoustic guitar and writing lyrics, sewing their own unique wardrobes, etc. A year ago I copied that quotation at a blog where an illustrious poet was haranguing all the MFA-manufactured poetasters. All you pretentious nullities--this was the gist--publishing your dreck in fly-by-night mags with fewer readers than a graffito in a public toilet, go do something useful with your lives, like become Starbucks baristi. Poetry is not for everybody; it's only for a special few whom the Muse infuses with a divine frenzy, etc. It's only for geniuses like me. The B. quotation is a corrective to that tenacious misconception.

    1. Was that Franz, by any chance?! I love the word "poetaster"

  9. I didn't name the poet because speak of the devil, etc.

  10. I really love that poem of Virginia's, by the way. I was so happy when she got it accepted! (She's a classmate of mine at UIC and I saw it in workshop last semester.)

    Virginia is a brilliant poet; I've read maybe 30 poems by her now that I simply adore. I expect she will do great things. And now I can't say anything bad about the New Yorker for a year, because someone there was smart enough to take her work (plus that Ashberry, and a few others of his as of late). No doubt there have been other good ones I've missed because I usually skip the poems, a habit I will have to break.

    1. And now I can't say anything bad about the New Yorker for a year

      Right? I'll have to watch it too! 3 cheers for VK

    2. I thought some more and I'll give them nine months. Eight.