Monday, May 21, 2007

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.


At 5/21/2007 9:20 AM, Blogger Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi John,

I like this piece a lot, in part due to its own many merits and felicities, and in part because it resonates with many of my own thoughts. I grapple with the question of communication all the time. I do think that poems should communicate (I don’t believe in art for art’s sake, because what sake does art have?), that poems do communicate (as human makings, how could they do otherwise? though they can do so well or badly, just as people can). And does anyone really write without any desire to communicate to anyone? Yet at the same time I’m wary of the compulsion to communicate, and skeptical as well. You capture this ambivalence in your characterization of the “IS/ISN’T of language as a communicative tool.” Though I often have felt that the only way in which I’ve been able to communicate is through my poems, if one’s main aim is communication, poems are a pretty inefficient means to getting to “what I might want to say to someone,” in your phrase, especially since much of what a poem, or any work of art, communicates is itself, a kind of ontological-aesthetic “I am that I am.” Not to set up any graven, or engraved, idols… And that “I am” doesn’t tell us why we should care. After all, I am too, and so are you, and so are the pine trees in my yard, and the day-lilies just coming into bloom.

Poems, like prayers, can be a way of speaking to the dead (they have been for me), or to anything that can’t actually hear or respond (Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” or Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”), whether present in or absent from the world. Again like prayers, poems can be a way of communicating with that which can’t be communicated with. I like your notion of poems inhabiting their speaking, because it opens up the prospect of the poem itself speaking, rather than being a vehicle or medium for speech. Of course, this still leaves open the question of just what the poem is speaking, and why, a question that you address in your piece. Does it simply speak its own ongoingness, gesture toward its own gestures? That seems necessary but not sufficient, and yet it’s so hard to speak of what and how poems speak without reductiveness. So I will stop for now.

I love Don Revell as a poet and a person, but I can’t assent to his dismissal of or weariness with great poems, or at least with the notion of great poems. Without the possibility of great poems, I can see no reason to read poetry, and even less reason to write it. And I don’t think that great poems, or even, in Jasper Bernes’s phrase, wonderful poems, are so commonplace that anyone can truly have grown tired of them.

Take good care. Thanks for writing this eloquent and thought-provoking piece.

all best,


PS--The font on this post is rather small and hard to read.

At 5/21/2007 9:40 AM, Blogger david dodd lee said...

Man, do you hit the nail on the head about the whole aim/purpose
thing. A lot of what I would call
"Imagination failures" that smolder
with obviousness underneath a poem's language precedes from that
idea of having a purpose, or worse,
an AIM to your art making . . .

At 5/21/2007 10:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey Reginald and David,

I agree with you Reginald, about poems being, well, in a way, a form of beautiful communication, but that’s not quite what you’re saying, but when you write, that you “often have felt that the only way in which [you’ve] been able to communicate is through [your] poems,” coupled with the little problem that poems are amazingly inefficient communicative tools. I think, for me at least, that poetry is closer to real communication than the telephone, because what we really want to communicate to each other, maybe, is more a tone than words? More a humanness than what I think about my day?

That’s a rather old formulation, perhaps, but it feels vigorous to me right now. There’s so much I want to communicate right now, and so little of it has to do with communication. Like notes in bottles, perhaps.

But notes in bottles still has an aim, even tossed in the ocean, doesn’t it, David? What an opportunity for “imagination failures” . . . ! Or even just your garden variety drama queen / king?

(PS. RS: I think I fixed the type size. Thanks.)

At 5/21/2007 10:34 AM, Blogger david dodd lee said...

It has an aim, but let's not so much figure it out in our own heads
so that as we all sit down to make/read art we feel the aim as almost more even than a subtext
in the thing. I was looking at some Susan Rothenburg paintings--I think linked from Siken's blog (I'm not sure)?--and there's just this whole other place in her head, coming out of her body, a universe, unpredictable, gorgeously
original, and in a way that is
very subtle she's doing it for me, the viewer, but try to articulate
what she (or it, the art, the vision) wants. It's past that.
All making has an Aim, but something often happens on the way from that diary writing or art for art sake activity on over to a more public kind of making. I think so much poetry is trying to
realize this in the way it is
so welcoming the idea of accident in art (shaped accident, or accidents, assembled, what have you). I still think when we make
art it is a form of intimacy in that we are trying to spread
"pleasure." Aren't we?

At 5/21/2007 10:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Art for Art’s Sake. I’ve always hated that phrase.

I wonder though, what actually “art’s sake” might be? I spent the morning at MOMA a couple weeks ago, and the work there seemed so alive. I was even moved by the Warhol. I imagine if I were able to ask ART what ART’S sake was, there would be an answer much more communal than the reductive “Art for Art’s sake” silliness that we’ve inherited. I like pleasure. “It Must Give Pleasure” as Steven writes. I’m all for it. Sign me up.

At 5/21/2007 4:11 PM, Blogger Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi again John,

When I wrote that I didn't believe in art for art's sake, I should have added "in the traditional sense of an escape from or evasion of the world and its harsh realities," which is what the term l'art pour l'art historically means.

Although art, as object or event, can't logically have its own sake, its own interests, desires, volition, art does present us with at least the image of a real presence (this comes close to Allen Grossman's description of the poem as the preservation of the human visage from destruction). In that sense, art does have a sake, a stake, which is not an escape from the world but a dialogue or even confrontation with the world. It's a demand on our attention and our consideration (in all senses of the word) and, at least implicitly, a demand that such attention, such respect, be paid to the world outside the artwork as well as to the world that the artwork embodies.

With specific regard to poems, and also in reference to the most recent piece on my blog, "A Few Words About Language," words are events or objects in their own right, but they also refer to/represent/enact/embody events and objects in the larger (or just outer?) world. Otherwise they would just be marks on the page or soundwaves in the air.

Take good care.

all best,


At 5/21/2007 4:25 PM, Blogger Busstogate said...

I am now finding that my own "natural poetry" is not so much aimed at delivering a message, but at stumbling on to several by way of processing spectacles, memories, and mundanities though a continual abuse of what passes for language skill and hearing loss.

Obnoxiously, I have this thankless fixation on remaining humble in my thoughts and deeds and have figured my poetry must also take this tack. Perhaps a few Borgesian frauds are healthy.

Ammons seems to have logged many glorious miles of words from his purposeful depictions of how the message and the vehicle are and should be equally troublesome to reconcile. He seemed to do so at times dialectically and at times, dichotomizing the language and its message, or should I say, its expression.

Lastly, the Greeks also inscribed infamous names on urns and smashed them into ostraka , which, upon the breakage, doomed the nameholder to the immortality of the damned. There are several connotations here, but the one that works for me is the one in which I want to hear the stories a la the Inferno from those who were so cast off. Moreover, I'd like to share (in) some of those stories myself.

At 5/22/2007 6:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed, art for art's sake, isn't worth the candle. (And really, of course impossible anywa, as you say, with the way words must, on some level, refer.) But I feel the anxiety that would produce such a statement, as the constant pull of words into reductive practical applications, is a constant poke at poets.

Or something like that.


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