Cole Swensen - Noise That Stays Noise
Cole Swensen has a new book out in the Poets on Poetry series from the University of Michigan Press, titled Noise That Stays Noise, and I’m about half way through so far. One of the things I like about Swensen is her enthusiasm for ideas. I don’t always follow what she’s saying, but I’m always surprised and intrigued. This book is no exception. I’m having a good time with it.
Here are a few resonant bits from the opening essay:
Both novelty and redundancy have a place in our interpretation of the world around us. Complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s “man without memory,” for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening; complete redundancy, on the other hand, would amount to the heat death of complete homogeneity.
The degree of nonunderstanding in a given piece changes from reader to reader and is often slight; the novel feeling it occasions is part of the pleasure of reading poetry and is the source of the simultaneous suspension and surprise that seems to bypass the cognitive faculties.
This process, which, borrowing a term from the biological sciences, I’m going to refer to as self-organization from noise, is particularly important in considering much recent American poetry, which often contains a lot of what many would consider noise.
Such an approach demands that we consider a literary text solely as an act of communication, as a completely quantifiable message passing through a channel from a sender to a receiver. Though this may strike some as cold, on the contrary, I think it is just such an approach that can elucidate the ways in which literature differs from mechanistic models of communication and can, unlike them, augment the quantifiable with irreducible qualities of human sensation and emotion.
Noise is most simply defined as any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quantity of quality of transmitted information.
[I]n a text, various idiosyncrasies from typographical errors to intentional ambiguities can also be considered noise if they too alter (or augment) the imparted information.
Information, in turn, can be defined in terms of the resolution of uncertainty.
[I]n literature . . . noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.
Literary noise . . . is often not a degradation of the message; on the contrary, such noise is often intentional and aimed at preventing the suppression of imagination that complete certainty can cause. . . . This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.
The way in which poets define noise strongly influences style . . . .
[T]he reader is crucial here . . . .
The above snippets were taken from the first essay, “Noise That Stays Noise.” Other essays deal with Mallarme, Olson, Susan Howe, fractals, Peter Gizzi, and Documentary Poetry. That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. There’s a brief essay on Ashbery coming up, I see.
I’ll leave you with this nice bit, a reaction (from her essay on Olson) to those who complain about poets using terms from science in their writing:
Such “misuse” of scientific terminology is often taken by scientists [And others as well – JG] as an affront, but there’s another way to look at it, a way that reveals the poet as reaching out to scientific language for its precision, and taking it from there as raw material to be worked through metaphor, metonymy, and ambiguity, until it expresses something that can’t be expressed otherwise.