Michael Palmer - Active Boundaries
As one might imagine, Michael Palmer has a lot to say about poetry and poetics in his new collection of selected essays and talks, Active Boundaries. He has a lot to say about other things as well. Painters and writers, mostly non-American. On the writing of poems, he touches and weaves, in his own idiosyncratic way. Here are a few cuts from the end of “Form’s Mind” which he originally gave as a talk at, of all places, Breadloaf!
from “Form’s Mind (Some Thoughts along the Way)”
Even the vanguardist impulse to clear the decks derives from an observed need to cleanse and restore the power of the imaginative word. Even the poem of traditional measures . . . bears its obligation toward the never-before. Even the sociological or politically motivated poem will reveal an aesthetic dimension (which comprises as well the anti-aesthetic)….
In each successful instance, a certain surplus of meaning will occur, a dimension of semantic inexhaustibility beyond the strictly communicative function, that will allow the poem to return, will allow it to converse with an other, an unknown addressee, will allow it to flow and submit to alternative readings, alteration, othering…. This is not an argument for riddling complexity, but for the echoic richness and referential breadth of even the simplest poetic speech in a particular framework of desire, that point where “the poetic, world-disclosing function of language” (Habermas) escapes the constraints of its daily obligations. As all poetry escapes or overrides what the poet means to say to arrive at what the poem means. Informing form vs. conforming form. Without this last step into the dark, so to speak, into a kind of trust or acknowledgement, the poem—and the poet—will never fully come to be.
If I say the Laws of Form, of active form, are unknowable, as opposed to formal rules, it is not meant as an act of mystification…. We cannot “know” the Laws of Form except as they enact language across, but not outside of, time. Form, as understood here, includes but transcends the aesthetic, and includes its own particular ethical determinants. We observe this most graphically in the varied goals and desires and understandings of active form among our various poetic subcultures. . . . Laws of Form have nothing to do with “ideal form,” but rather with the poem’s being-in-the-world, its stance toward systems of control, societal and aesthetic preconceptions and received ideas. One might say, the poem’s eternal stance against passive subjectivity against the given, on behalf of the unspeakable and unheard. . . . Whenever poetry moves too close to power, or is seduced by authority . . ., it begins to emit a curious, though recognizable, odor, signaling its demise. So, we might also conjecture that the Laws of Form include something like an ethics of representation, varying from community to community….
At the same time, we have allowed our debates to wander into a number of areas of seemingly irresolvable contention. Traditional formalists (neo- and otherwise) contend that only a return to narrative linearity and metrical orthodoxy will save us from the flood of nondescript nonmetrical verse. Vanguardists (neo- and otherwise) maintain that the master narratives have collapsed, that a fractured or multiple subjectivity is the only vital reflection of, or commentary upon, the swirling moment, the only viable response to the culture of control. Both, interestingly, rail against the institutional workshop, not without some justification, as producer of the McPoet and McPoem, of relentlessly normal, disempowered verse….
I think, for the most part, these debates are to be welcomed and joined…. At the same time, they risk leaving the poem, once again, homeless or, at least, exiled from the debate itself and without a voice. The prescriptions of the New Formalists tend frequently, in certain hands, toward the formulaic, producing work of a dreary familiarity and transparency and a reader-friendly blandness. Much recent vanguardist activity (often itself now a product of workshops) displays an overdependence on the “device” (collage, fragmentation, the aleatoric, displacement, borrowed Oulipean operations and so on), ironically engendering another version of the overly familiar or formulaic, the “same” as sign of “difference.” Maybe I’m saying nothing more than that any poetics can calcify into an evasion, an evasion of listening and attendance to that other information, that othering voice that arises along the way. It has perhaps something to do with the elusive nature of the poem, its uncanniness, its mindedness, its insistence, its necessary heresies, that it not be welcomed to the debate itself . . . .
If I am arguing for anything . . . . perhaps implicitly, I am invoking an alternative model of form that is fluid, shifting, communicative, an unfolding and enfolding, and a mutuality.