Poetic Discursiveness and Lineated Prose: Some Questions

Though his discussions of J.V. Cunningham’s “Epigram #1” from Doctor Drink and Frank Bidart’s “Golden State” in the essay aren’t bad, I find Robert Pinsky’s “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness” rather unconvincing on a conceptual level. I’m not sure I can do better and perhaps the problem’s with me when I fail to understand how he proceeds

  • from identifying the contradictory senses of “discursive” in how it “describes speech of writing which is wandering and disorganized” but “can also mean ‘explanatory’–pointed, organized around a setting-forth of material (133)”
  • to reconciling those opposites by referring to the figure of “motion over terrain…going through or going over one’s subject” (to which he adds, “Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” which confuses me partly because I’m not too clear about the relationship he makes between “inclusive” and “intuitive”)

And I can’t quite articulate why I’m so bugged when the preceding discussion finally leads him to describe “poetic discursiveness” as:

It is speech, organized by its meaning, avoiding the distances and complications of irony on one side and the ecstatic fusion of speaker, meaning and subject on the other. The idea is to have all the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic (ibid).

When I think about it, perhaps this is rooted in differences between Pinsky’s poetic and mine. The promise I see when he asserts, “Much of the work of the so-called ‘New York poets’ could be described as mock-discursive (134)” is defused when he follows that with: “Moreover, much of the memorable writing by these poets seems to emerge when there is the least amount of ‘mock’ statement, the largest element of open discourse (ibid.).”

And I guess I also had some problems of expectation. I thought Pinsky would look at something that would illuminate, say, Zukofsky having been “moved by the fact” of how Stevens’s “music thruout has not been impaired by having philosophized (97).” I also thought Pinsky might address the common problem of poems that seem more like “lineated prose,” but that doesn’t happen either.

Now if I could do it, that is, if I could go through the subject matter of poetic discursivity, to, as it were, discourse on discursivity, I’d like to look into:

  1. John Ashbery’s “Definition of Blue”
  2. portions of Frank Bidart’s “Advice to the Players” and the whole of “Young Marx” (both found near the bottom of this page)
  3. Matthea Harvey’s “I Would Have Stayed,” which lineates the sentence from Giorgio Vasari that begins with “The vinedresser of the Belvedere having found a very strange lizard…”
  4. Butterflies, Lineated,” where Jeffrey Robinson lineates a phrase from one of Keats’s letters, with other examples of such “found poems” here

I’m one of those willing to quote “without irony” from the Ashbery poem, so I think I’m missing something when I read it, as I do, with a straight face. The same goes for the prose portions of Bidart’s “Advice to the Players. “Young Marx,” however, apart from “attribution of source” at the end, does gain something from the lineation, as does Harvey’s poem and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson’s lineation of Keats.

So, once again, lineation, and what it does to syntax, especially the syntax of prose. It’s also a matter of diction as well, I suppose. The result is some kind of “discursive transformation,” I guess, but what kind? And more importantly for people who write poems, how?

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The Spoils: August 2012

  1. The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry by John Ashbery
  2. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination by Wallace Stevens
  3. Romanticism by April Bernard
  4. Savage Night by Jim Thompson
  5. Daydream Nation (33⅓:) by Matthew Stearns
  6. Rid of Me (33⅓:) by Kate Schatz

Matthew Zapruder with thirty reasons why John Ashbery might be the greatest living American poet.

Come On All You Ghosts

So recently I have been involved in two separate conversations (one at a Q and A, another in correspondence) about John Ashbery, in which I strongly have contended that he is our greatest living poet. I feel his greatness is, to some extent, cumulative (see the letter below in which I make this point in somewhat confused yet ardent detail), but I also believe that he has written a sizeable number of what I would consider “great” fine isolated poems. So in order to demonstrate this point, I have selected 30 poems, with links below.

A few notes (from the air). First, the bias is heavily towards poems from the first 3 decades of his career. It seems to me there are more truly great single lyric poems from that time period, than from the next several decades (a body of work in my mind at least equal to the…

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Lauterbach on Stevens

From Ann Lauterbach’s “Is I Another? A Talk In Seven Beginnings,” as published in The Night Sky: Writings On The Poetics Of Experience:

Stevens moves me, because he comes to the very brink of transcendent vision, only to subvert it through a kind of alchemical pragmatism, where sequels of flamboyant mediation lead him back the “ordinary” and even beyond to the stripped profane dump, “the the.” In Stevens, the obdurate declivity between authorial subject and textual object quickens, so that Foucault’s “possible room for possible subjects” begins to emerge. In this regard, Stevens provides a prelude to Ashbery’s cast of shifting pronouns, where the idea of a single self, coherent and cogent, gives way to plural subject positions, aspects of perception and response, within a characteristic habit of mind. (37-38)

Ann Lauterbach on John Ashbery’s “Litany”

 

I have come to believe, or think, or understand, that when someone dies, the most acute sense of loss is that of his or her voice. (For a while, one can “hear” a person’s voice in one’s inner ear, but slowly that fades.) This is odd, since sound is of course immaterial; one would think that the body would be the most felt absence. But sound is a distinctive marker of living presence more than any material object can possibly be; sound and lived time are indissoluble: they are, so to speak, part of the continuity of a landscape rather than the singularity of a portrait. Sound is embedded in spatial context.

via From Conjunctions:49, Ann Lauterbach on John Ashbery’s As We Know.

Five for Today

  1. Remember that old opposition set up between word and image? The Visual Thesaurus mentioned here makes it easy to say goodbye to it. Even better is the VisuWords graphic dictionary, which has the benefit of being free.
  2. Not only does the name of The Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild sound Python-esque, so do the products it sells. These include Post Structural-Its sticky notes, Freudian slippers, and Nietzsche’s Will to Power Bars (“When your Wille zur Macht is a-flagging or you’re just a little tired of transvaluating all values, try these!”).
  3. Singapore-born poet Jee Leong Koh, now living in New York, writes a sequence of ghazals entitled “A Lover’s Recourse,” which, as its title suggests, responds to Roland Barthes. Superlative work, and my own recent interest in the ghazal (thanks to my reading of “Newlywed Ghazal” in a powerful poetry collection by another Asian poet) suddenly seems burdened by the anxiety of influence(s). Still, talk about eclecticism being “the degree zero of contemporary general culture”! (Ah, salut once more, M. Barthes.)
  4. William H. Sherman’s “How to Make Anything Signify Anything” is a fantastic article about Francis Bacon’s development of the “biliteral cipher,” generating a code that ends up culminating in a photograph of people who, by turning their heads in certain ways, themselves become an encoded message. Holy McLuhan, Batman! The sender is the medium is the message!
  5. Ange Mlinko writes about Robert Duncan writing about H.D. in “Duncan’s Divagations.” I like Mlinko, I like Duncan, I like HD, so that’s a triple whammy. One of the many gems: “The poet, in order to find the real, must look under the surface of the world to its hidden core of perdurance. The figure for one’s pantheon of masters is not, properly, a ‘canon,’ as it is in English departments. It is, per the ancient tarot pack, an arcana.” Beautiful.

 

Postscript: Mlinko’s “The Everyday Oblique”, one of my favorite articles, also dealt with codes and is yet another example of her concise yet substantial brand of criticism. Her other articles for The Nation often make for compelling reading, too, exhibiting the same qualities.

To whit, she lauds John Ashbery for having discovered that “the ideal poetry for the Information Age is a poetry of no information” and reads country music in Graham Foust‘s poems, based on how country “typically mines the quotidian and refines it into an elegy you’ve been hearing on the radio all your life.” Again, beautiful.

Sestina

I first heard about this poetic form after I read Neil Gaiman’s “Vampire Sestina” ages ago (and I’m pleasantly surprised to know that his is not the only example from SF/F/H). I’ve never actually tried it myself, but I’m not alone in being attracted to it in some way. It can quite delightful: