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?


The Spoils: July 2012

From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip
  2. Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? by Gwee Li Sui (review)
  3. The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House by Nick Lantz (review of this book and Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, which I already own and love)
  4. Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey (reviewed with three other books)
  5. Modern Life by Matthea Harvey (reviewed here, here, here, here, and here)
  6. Company of Moths by Michael Palmer (mashed up here)
  7. Mythology of Touch by Mary Stone Dockery
  8. The Wait of Atom by Jessie Carty

In The Beginning: Questions

Two years ago, on the first day of the first graduate-level poetry workshop I ever attended, my teacher asked us to bring copies of a poem we liked. This was, I imagine, designed to be both an assignment and an icebreaker, perhaps even an introduction. For the next few days, I kept several poems in mind and tried to decide between them. At that time, this included the following:

In the end, I copped out and chose not one, but two: the Stevens and the title poem from Harvey’s collection. My teacher didn’t care much for the latter but vigorously discussed many of the formal devices Stevens employs in “High-Toned.” Afterwards, however, he warned me of the tendency in Stevens’s poetry to exclude the reader, which became one of the many ideas I wrestled with that semester as I wrote my poems and submitted them for critique during the workshops.

(To be honest, I can’t remember the word my teacher actually used to describe Stevens’s writing; I often think it was “arrogant” or “aloof,” but there are times when I feel it could be something else like “snobbish.” A year later, I would remember his point but not the word he used, when I read Louise Gluck’s “Invitation And Exclusion,” the essay in Proofs And Theories where she describes how her early “encounter with Stevens was shattering (114),” because reading his work made her feel “superfluous, part of some marginal throng (115).” By that time, I had learned to simultaneously heed and ignore the warning; though I somewhat understand where Gluck is coming from when she characterizes Stevens’s work as such, I admit to loving his poetry precisely for that very quality.)

The other question my teacher asked that first day was just as confusing: “How do you reconcile choosing Stevens and Harvey?” I was puzzled for several reasons. After all, as someone who loves listening to both “So What” by Miles Davis and, er, “So What” by Anti-Nowhere League, I considered the differences between Stevens and Harvey to be much less irreconcilable than that.

More to the point, while Stevens’s lyricism and Romanticism, not to mention his frequent use of blank verse, can make him seem arguably more conventional than, say, Pound (“break[ing] the pentameter” was Pound’s “first heave” but Stevens doesn’t seem so interested in that project) or Eliot, the indulgence in wordplay and musicality makes many of Stevens’s poems approach, limit-like, the point of nonsense.

In “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” it’s obvious in bits like “tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,” but many of the other lines make their sense through sound: “like windy citherns hankering for hymns,” the last two lines of the poem, and many others seem to me to form the “jovial hullabaloo among the spheres” which is the poem itself. It’s a play of sound without being nonsense, and neither is Harvey, despite how skittery the latter (and even the former) seems to, say, Tony Hoagland.

I still like those two poems I’ve chosen, although, when another teacher in another poetry workshop I took one year later gave the same assignment, I chose a different one: Ann Lauterbach’s “Rancor Of The Empirical,” which I consider a little Stevensian in theme and language. It has since become my “totem poem,” although I did have a runner-up: Chad Davidson’s “Cockroaches: Ars Poetica.”