The Gestures of Speaking & of Meaning-making
The poem as a gesture of its speaking and the gesture of its meaning-making?
So how is composing a poem like talking to someone? Seriously, and for real, and not in the Ted Kooser way, with his faux-genial pretense? This has been at the very heart of what I've been grappling with recently. How are these sentences trying to do something and how are they trying not to do something? Right? I mean, if we mostly don't understand each other in regular conversation, how much more difficult must talking through art be? So why would anyone try? But then again, we are really just talking to each other, aren't we? So? What do we, as artists, really do with this IS / ISN’T of language as communicative tool?
I'm vexed by communication (in all contexts, usually). I don't know if this means anything much to anyone else, but one of the things I really like about some poems is how they come to inhabit their speaking, and if that’s a profitable way of looking at poetry, or some poetry, then this idea of composing by "what might I want to say to someone" might be profitable, at least for me, at least to get a thought started in the compositional process. But along with that goes the idea of the poem really just being about the action of the poem unfolding. Which is, the true subject of art is the process of the art getting made, right? The frame isn't about the art, the art is about the frame.
I love sentences like that, which is one of the main things I love about art, the way it inhabits the gesture of its meaning, but in the end for rather non-practical aims. But to say a word like “aims” means that there might BE an aim, and if so, a purpose. And the idea of a purpose flies directly against much of what I’ve used in my compositional practice. When poets talk about their “purpose” it usually leaves me reaching for a rope to hang myself.
And this other idea of purpose, the purpose toward the poem revealing the poem: how might the poem be about the poem unfolding? Ashbery seems to do this a lot in his work, and Michael Palmer, and, in the past, Jorie Graham, the way they have the gestures of “what’s going on here is” folded into the content of the poem unfolding. And of course, this gesture can be overused, and become as hollow as “Dear reader, oh woe is my poem unfolding,” but, I believe, all poets, to some degree, inhabit this gesture (though sometimes through a rather willed evasion of the gesture – which may be cheating on my part here I know), which is just the same conversational gesture we all inhabit with each other, right? “I’m the kind of person who…” or “what I mean here is.” It’s a gesture that’s as old as the invocation of the muses, isn’t it?
There’s a radical kind of ongoingness to this gesture (in its contemporary manifestation), this conversational and self-reflexive gesture. And there’s a terror in its existentialism, its constant passing of toll booths, and the way that there is a destination implied by it all, a totality, that could turn solipsistic way too easily (and often does, right?), but there’s also a way that some poets just play with it as a sort of juggling act without consequence, which becomes its own sort of solipsism.
This idea of conversational onoingness (I’m also thinking of Charles Wright here, and Martha Ronk) is fraught with real consequence, though at moments it often appears slight . . . and then another but, as in, if you look at any of our lives, slicing off a moment, chances are it’ll look rather slight (“life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” as John Lennon sang it). It’s a gesture into ongoingness. The whole becomes the one. (“They all sound the same. It’s all one song.” As Neil Young sang it).
What all this is leading up to I haven’t a clue, but it seems more about poetry than poems, more about a fidelity of attention to what words do and are, and less about making the one great poem that workshops seem hell bent on pointing us at. Donald Revell, at the panel on John Ashbery that I was on at AWP said, in answer to a question from Mark Halliday regarding the value judging of Ashbery’s individual poems, said, “I’m tired of great poems.”
There’s something in that that I deeply admire. It’s a throwing off of the impulse of the Grecian urn, and toward living the thing out. At some point, you just have to start talking. It sounds like freedom to me. I feel released from something I didn’t know I needed to be released from. And into talking, even if I don’t really have a clue what that is.