Sunday, January 29, 2012

The “Elusive” Poem

Round and round we go.

Sooner or later everyone loves a work of art that is in some way elusive. And, in love, one wants to tell others. But how does one talk about something that is elusive?

For me, the best art contains something elusive, and, therefore, will be difficult to explain, or, in some instances, to talk about much at all. This is especially true when I’m talking with a skeptical or hostile audience.

If one is interested in the ways of theory, one can take a theoretical approach and have the interstices of parataxis to circumlocute, but that will only go so far as well. Theory helps one say what Language writing was doing in the culture in general, how it was holding up language to foreground something or other, and that this was political, etc, but it can’t help explain one’s enjoyment of Language writing on a poem by poem basis.

So, if you’re either not of that sort of a theoretical bent, or if you want to simply say why you love a particular poem that is considered elusive, experimental, innovative, or somesuch, what do you talk about other than “I sure get a charge out of this”?

This has been a problem of mine for years, the desire to talk about a book or poem that resists prose paraphrase. Prose paraphrase and description of a poem’s form are the common coin we’re given to talk about poetry. Why? Because that feels less subjective.

Without much to really support it, I blame The New Criticism, with the pseudo-scientific approach they took to poetry, as if it were something that could be dissected into revealing its spirit. Well, one does find things out that way, and they are often helpful things, but a poem doesn’t reveal its spirit to that approach.

So how does one talk about the elusive stuff, the stuff that really pulls you in, in a poem? This is a problem when talking about all poetry really, but it is especially difficult with poetry that doesn’t reveal much to prose paraphrase and formal inquiry, because it’s through those two steps that people usually base their leap into love. The truth of the matter (in art as in life) is that the love comes first in my experience, and then comes a rationalization of that love. It’s the gut first, right? And then we go back and figure things out, praise the poet’s formal ingenuity and/or subtle and incisive argument.

This is the dilemma Frederick Smock finds himself in with David Shapiro’s Lateness in the current issue of APR.

Here’s a link to buy it:

“Right away I could see that his poems are a wonder. But they also confounded me deeply. They also made no sense in the usual way . . .” he writes. This is the problem in a nutshell. He wants to talk about something that resists being “talked” about.

Sense is a convention. It’s a social act. And it could be another way. Some other way of making sense could have been our conventional way of making sense. One of the things I think art does very well is to explore these alternate sense-making avenues. Often, over time, these alternate sense-making avenues also become conventional. I take this as a truth, but it doesn’t help talk about the specific poem at hand, because the poem at hand is not conventional, not socially agreed upon.

But we try, and in the trying, we often come to new ways of understanding. Not always, though. Some things that are inscrutable remain so. That is something artists take with them into their terra incognita.

As Smock quotes John Ashbery on David Shapiro's poetry: “Like so much recent art, it renders criticism obsolete.” It renders received criticism mute to its full presence.

But still, we have to attempt to talk about it. There are the usual ways one can go about this. What it reminds you of. How it makes you feel. How it operates upon you (or not). What possible psychological and/or social (historical, allusive) states it tours or inhabits. What it allows one to contemplate and what it takes one away from contemplating. In short, all the things we ask of poetry once we’ve dispatched with prose paraphrase.

Here’s Smock’s confession:

“Most good poems of whatever kind carry within them instructions for the reader, but I could not pick up on the instructions here. I realized that I did not know how to read ‘Shapiro.’ I am not sure that I know now, though some things have come into focus during my meditations upon his poems across the years.”

This, I would expect, is what artists hope for, someone to simply live with the experience of their work. If Shapiro’s work were less elusive, would Smock have lived with it? I don’t know, but having a committed reader, one who will live into one’s work, that’s a precious thing.

Because life continues to do these things to us.

A couple other things of note.

William Carlos Williams on his aims in Paterson: “the longer I lived in my place, among the details of my life, I realized that these isolated observations and experiences needed pulling together to gain profundity.”

W.D. Snodgrass on poetry: “A poet’s business is to say something interesting.”

I’ll end with a short poem by David Shapiro.


In extreme pain
Q meets T
They walk into a house
And later a double exposure is sent to S

Somewhere behind the curtains
Uncertainty is laughing
As you ask the yes or no questions
I am moving towards you by analogy


At 1/29/2012 3:52 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I resist the idea that paraphrasing a (good) poem is of any value whatsoever. We don't try to paraphrase paintings or songs. I do think even elusive poems (as with music and visual art) can be described in terms of their techniques and the subsequent effects. Even poems with no traditional "form" use techniques.

And there will always be some jerk who refuses to believe you actually enjoy something he or she doesn't understand!

At 1/29/2012 5:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Agreed, though I don’t think paraphrasing a poem that can be paraphrased is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not the only thing. It’s often worth trying, just to see how such meaning-making breaks down. It can sometimes lead to better things. And at other times it just kind of stops there.

At 1/30/2012 5:42 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Resist away. Meanwhile, I will resist the idea that *all* nonsense is poetry.

At 1/30/2012 5:47 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Also, the problem with Shapiro's work isn't that it's elusive -- it's that to paraphrase it intelligibly you have to have read all the books he's read, heard (and played) all the music he's heard (and played), seen all the paintings and sculptures he's seen, and known all the people whose names he mentions (or doesn't mention but assumes you will know). It's a little like the problem with Muldoon's work, except that Muldoon includes the footnotes in the work and therefore gratifies the average viewer, while Shapiro shoots at the footnotes and those who would make them or want them, even. The worst putdown I've ever heard David deliver other poets was that they are "dusty footnotes."

The poetry is totally experiential. It's just not a set of experiences the culture supports anymore.

At 1/30/2012 6:49 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

I think that you can talk about a poem's content without paraphrasing it exactly, but yeah.

Jordan, certainly all nonsense isn't *good* poetry...

At 1/30/2012 7:09 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Now we’re getting somewhere.

There’s always going to be some dreadful nonsense, as there’s always going to be some nonsense (other than sense) that is delightful. Some of each category might still be good poetry, I suppose. But I’m pulling for the delightful, as nonsense is in the eye of the one sensing.

Shapiro’s impulse seems to be the opposite of Ashbery’s then? At least as Ashbery says about is work, how he likes to keep it general in a way so that more people can find their way into it (that’s a bad paraphrase, apologies). And Shapiro, then, is sharply interior?

Either way, his work is elusive to me (and Smock,I guess), in that it’s difficult to comprehend or define, and that it’s difficult to isolate or identify. I suppose “elusive” is also in the eye of the pursuer.

And all this is outside of liking or loving something.

At 1/30/2012 7:27 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I usually paraphrase--slather some hypotactical mortar between the bricks of an Armantrout poem, for example. Because, as Ashbery says, we do have an urge to make conventional sense of everything. Nevertheless, most of the pleasure I derive from poetry occurs during perusal of what Ashbery calls the "many-colored rags" draped over the "armature"--i.e., the story or idea--of the poem. I like to talk about the rags, and I like to talk about the sparks fostered by friction between dichotomies. And I especially like to point out patterns created by repetitions. "Pattern recognition." But all aspects of a poem should be interesting to us; we should be willing to talk about them. This morning I reread an old Levis poem; it seemed to me that that the armature is a predominant feeling engendered in part by such repetitions as "means nothing," "explains nothing," "cannot remember," "cannot identify," "I don't know." The several aspects of the poem work together; each is important and worth talking about.

At 1/30/2012 8:10 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I'm starting to feel like the Charlton Heston of the National Paraphrase Association.

A function of criticism I've tried to avoid is to weigh in on whether the work at hand cuts it or not. My feeling is, if a poet made something good once, it's prudent to check in with them from time to time to see if they've done it again. And if a poet hasn't ever made something that gets to me, I'll pass on them until someone points me toward one they got right. To discuss a poet who hasn't ever come through with the stuff -- what's the point? So, my unspoken baseline assumption is that if I'm talking about a poet, I believe they've written something I still want to reread. Good, bad, sense, nonsense, whatever. There's something going on and I still want to know more about it.

As a thought experiment, replace "paraphrase" wherever you see it with "explain in your own words what's going on."

Not really wrapping this up in a package, am I. Oh well.

At 1/30/2012 8:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Ha!, no you're not, Jordan, but that's OK, because "wrapping this up in a package" would be like explaining it, which is what caused me to write the post in the first place. Even as "paraphrase" and its attendant "explain me" are reductions of possibility and beside the question of attraction to the art (in most cases), we still want to talk about what interests us.

There's this great call, as David illustrates above, for us to make of something and share our making, our interpreting. I just think that the paraphrase part of the equation privileges a kind of poem, and a reading of poetry, that I find less than ideal. Explaining is a bit different. but you're right, it's very close.

At 1/30/2012 8:25 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

Paraphrase means to "restate a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clearness; reword" -- which is different from "Explaining what's going on." That sounds more like description. Unless by "what's going on" you mean something like the narrative or "plot" of the poem, but not all poems have a "plot."

How would you paraphrase "Depression before Spring"?

At 1/30/2012 8:49 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Yes. And how would you paraphrase "Lunar Paraphrase." Go!

At 1/30/2012 8:55 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Paraphrase of Wallace Stevens's "Depression Before Spring."

It is morning in winter. A rooster makes his morning call, but there is no bright sunrise. There are bright and strange things to look at, such as the wet faces of cows, or a figure who may be my wife, or snowy fields or the colors of grasses and trees in winter. I am reminded of the speech of Santa Claus, but his time has past this year. There are more bird calls, but only of winter birds. There is no spring sunrise on green fields. My dismay at this situation is unstated, but evident throughout; what I need is to get on a train to Florida, to take up my argument with that boor Hemingway.

At 1/30/2012 8:58 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

Well done. Rivals the original. The end may be better.

At 1/30/2012 9:12 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Thanks. But I'd give all my prose and most of everybody else's to have written "ki-ki-ri-ki / Brings no rou-cou, / No rou-cou-cou."

I put a lot of value on those lines for where they come in the poem - I like the stone and the setting - it seems important to me to be able to see all the way around the experience in the poem, and in a way that I can relate it to someone else. (The category of "someone else" includes all future versions of me.)

At 1/30/2012 9:12 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


The New Critics were the ones who said that 'paraphrasing' cannot get at what is good in poetry. Maybe I'm wrong, but it felt like you were saying the opposite. The New Critics were champions of the "elusive" in poetry.

But the "elusive" is code for "some jerk who refuses to believe you actually enjoy something he or she doesn't understand;" (as Elisa put it in the first post of the thread)because, after all, how do I articulate to you that I like the simplest rhyme? Isn't that "elusive," especially if you suggest the 'simple rhyme' is too simple for your taste? "Simple?" I reply? Oh no, our difference of opinion only proves this pleasure I get from this 'simple rhyme' is "elusive!"


At 1/30/2012 9:20 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

It's still winter (reality as it is, with no idea of order superimposed on it). The speaker is depressed because he needs a new idea of order (the verdure of spring, the green-slippered queen). The ki ki ri ki must be the crowing of the cock. The rou cou cou reminds me of an old Spanish folk song, "Coo Coo Roo Coo Coo, Paloma." Paloma, or dove, is a symbol of a queen, among other things.

Or maybe you'd rather just revel in the music of the ri ki cou rou and the queen/green rhyme without wondering what the poem "means." Maybe you'd rather just imagine dazzling blonde cow-spittle hair.

At 1/30/2012 9:22 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

The difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. But you know, these conditions are always going to vary from reader to reader, depending on temperament, training, ax, grudge, what have you. There are no right answers, as they say. Blessing and curse.

At 1/30/2012 10:02 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

The more accurately we react to a poem, the greater chance of giving insult to the poet.

Vague approval could be flattery, vague censor could be grudge. Accuracy of approval, frustrated by the 'paraphrase' dilemma, is nearly impossible, and, if excellence cannot be improved upon, all that is left is an accurate appraisal which specifically improves on the poem---which is sure to offend.


At 1/30/2012 10:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

So many strands that interest me in this.

But forst, Tom, when I was talking about New Citicism, I was thinking about it in this way:

"New Criticism

New Criticism emphasizes explication, or "close reading," of "the work itself." It rejects old historicism's attention to biographical and sociological matters. Instead, the objective determination as to "how a piece works" can be found through close focus and analysis, rather than through extraneous and erudite special knowledge. It has long been the pervasive and standard approach to literature in college and high school curricula.

New Criticism, incorporating Formalism, examines the relationships between a text's ideas and its form, between what a text says and the way it says it. New Critics "may find tension, irony, or paradox in this relation, but they usually resolve it into unity and coherence of meaning" (Biddle 100). New Criticism attempts to be a science of literature, with a technical vocabulary, some of which we all had to learn in junior high school English classes (third-person, denoument, etc.). Working with patterns of sound, imagery, narrative structure, point of view, and other techniques discernible on close reading of the text, they seek to determine the function and appropriateness of these to the self-contained work.

New Critics, especially American ones in the 1940s and 1950s, attacked the standard notion of "expressive realism," the romantic fallacy that literature is the efflux of a noble soul, that for example love pours out onto the page in 14 iambic pentameter lines rhyming ABABCD etc. The goal then is not the pursuit of sincerity or authenticity, but subtlety, unity, and integrity--and these are properties of the text, not the author. The work is not the author's; it was detached at birth. The author's intentions are "neither available nor desirable" (nor even to be taken at face value when supposedly found in direct statements by authors). Meaning exists on the page. Thus, New Critics insist that the meaning of a text is intrinsic and should not be confused with the author's intentions nor the work's affective dimension (its impressionistic effects on the reader). The "intentional fallacy" is when one confuses the meaning of a work with the author's purported intention (expressed in letters, diaries, interviews, for example). The "affective fallacy" is the erroneous practice of interpreting texts according to the psychological or emotional responses of readers, confusing the text with its results.

To do New Critical reading, ask yourself, "How does this piece work?" Look for complexities in the text: paradoxes, ironies, ambiguities. Find a unifying idea or theme which resolves these tensions. "

At 1/30/2012 10:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

There are aspects of the New Critical approach that I like, but many I don't like.

Anyway. That said, a book that I've liked quite a bit is Ronald Sukenick's _Musing The Obscure_, where he "reads" the major poems of Stevens delightfully.

That's one thing one can do with a poem that lends itself to that sort of approach. But not all poems lend themselves to that sort of approach.

So one can say, "Paraphrase 'Jubilate Agno'" and the unhelpful hounds are loose.

At 1/30/2012 10:37 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Nah. Depends on the poet. Some actually have thick skins! if the critique is meant to be helpful. And even, sometimes, if not.

At 1/30/2012 10:38 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, I love that Sukenick book too. (And I liked some of his fiction at the time -- Blown Away, for example.)

At 1/30/2012 10:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Jordan, you’re reacting to Tom here, right? I agree with you if so, as one can never really know how “accurate” one is in reacting to a poem with getting into several fallacies at once. No poet I know would be offended in this situation.

At 1/30/2012 10:42 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

It's a great book, yeah.

At 1/30/2012 10:43 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It's the only Sukenick I have, though I've heard good things about his fiction. It seems it's something of an underground Stevens classic? Someone should bring it back into print. It is out of print, isn't it?

At 1/30/2012 11:50 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

The New Critics were frauds. As if anyone EVER confused the 'intention' of writing a good poem with a good poem! (and if one were silly enough to be confused in such a manner, the issue would be with the 'critic,' not the 'new critical' text) ---New Criticism was a smokescreen to push out history (especially classical, romantic) and bring in the modernist's 'new' (where only the (elusive) 'text' mattered). John Crowe Ransom, who helped found the Writing Program era, said this explicitly. One can see this clearly in T.S. Eliot, the father of New Criticism, who went out of his way to call Shelley a 'blackguard.' The text is the only thing we should look at---unless we need to personally abuse the favorites of the literary history professors. In order for the 'new' to be worshiped, the 'old' (such as Shelley) had to go. I've been reading Shelley's atheist philosophy recently and it's giving me an insight into his poetry---the New Critics' attempt to isolate 'the text' was anti-scholarly and regressive. This doesn't mean one cannot 'read' a Shelley poem 'for the poem,' but there was never any problem with 'reading.' New Criticism didn't have to tell us that: New Criticism, the whole of it, was created for another reason entirely.

At 1/30/2012 1:11 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


At 1/30/2012 2:26 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

The New Critics have been everyone's favorite whipping boys for a long time now, and not entirely without cause. But I think it's worth giving them their due. When I first asked someone what a "close reading" actually was ... hoping to try it someday ... I learned that it encompasses everything I've ever done in a lit class. I suspect this is true for everyone present. Indeed, old timers that I checked with described English classes of yore as standing back and admiring the Old Masters for their old masterfulness.

I agree with Elisa on the (huge) difference between a paraphrase and an explanation. Jordan does a good job of demonstrating why we call some poetry unparaphraseable. It's not that we can't do it; it's that the results are mostly useless for the purposes of illuminating the work.


At 1/30/2012 2:58 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

"Indeed, old timers that I checked with described English classes of yore as standing back and admiring the Old Masters for their old masterfulness."


Can you be more specific? Poe, Byron and Pope didn't stand back and admire. All we do is 'stand back and admire' Stevens, Williams, Ashbery, Armantrout etc etc these days.

At 1/30/2012 4:30 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I took a class from a New Critic, Russell Fraser. He was the most erudite professor I ever had. He turned me on to Herbert and Herrick. That was the best poetry class I ever had.

At 1/30/2012 4:34 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

There are mountains of criticism on Stevens and Ashbery. Armantrout hasn't been around quite as long. Give her time.

I stand around and admire all three ... not being a critic, I'm under no obligation to do more.


At 1/30/2012 5:25 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Paraphrase as bullshit-repellent.

At 1/30/2012 5:43 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

Eh? One can paraphrase bullshit, no?

At 1/30/2012 6:30 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And that's not even to mention Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telophase.

Just sayin.

At 1/30/2012 6:35 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Clarification. I said that New Criticism " ... encompasses everything I've ever done in a lit class," which isn't true.

I should hav said that it introduced (or at least codified) close reading, which has been the primary approach of every lit class I've taken.


At 1/30/2012 9:12 PM, Blogger David said...

I've been reading Shelley's atheist philosophy recently and it's giving me an insight into his poetry ...


Personally, I must avoid his atheist philosophy or else have an allergic reaction to his poetry. No doubt I overlook a thing or two with this evasive (or self-defensive) approach. Even so, I still benefit from the Beauty of his Verse.


At 1/31/2012 5:02 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Maybe Jordan meant that paraphrase is a way of ascertaining whether the poem under consideration is bullshit.

word v.: chorkies

At 1/31/2012 7:28 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

How so? Jordan's version of "Depression Before Spring" gives no indication of whether the original poem is bullshit or not.

At 1/31/2012 7:43 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

No bs detected, therefore it is not a bs detector.

I don't follow that logic.

At 1/31/2012 7:46 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

Well, bullshit is a poorly defined term, but your paraphrase could match any number of other poems, some of which might be "bullshit" by my lights.

It sounds like you're saying "If I [Jordan] can paraphrase it, then I know it's not bullshit" but that's just begging the question, i.e., using your conclusion as an argument.

At 1/31/2012 7:53 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

To put it another way, you're basically saying a) If I can paraphrase a poem, I know it's not bullshit, and b) "bullshit" is anything I can't paraphrase. It's tautological.

At 1/31/2012 8:12 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

"Maybe Jordan meant..."

Now we're getting somewhere

At 1/31/2012 8:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And then there’s the venerable Wikipedia:

Bullshit (also bullcrap, bullplop, bullbutter) is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism B.S. In British English, "bollocks" is a comparable expletive, although bullshit is commonly used in British English. As with many expletives, it can be used as an interjection or as many other parts of speech, and can carry a wide variety of meanings. It can be used either as a noun or as a verb. Used as an interjection, it protests the use of misleading, disingenuous, or false language. While the word is generally used in a deprecating sense, it may imply a measure of respect for language skills, or frivolity, among various other benign usages. In philosophy, Harry Frankfurt, among others, analyzed the concept of bullshit as related to but distinct from lying.

At 1/31/2012 8:15 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

My favorite was "bullbutter," by the way. "That's a lot of bullbutter there, my friend." Ah, it just trips off the tongue.

And then there's the old standby from school:

Explicate fully.

At 1/31/2012 8:15 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

John, my dad used to have a friend who was known for saying "Good bullshit" (in reference to a story, say). Perhaps I am interested in poetry that qualifies as good bullshit.

At 1/31/2012 8:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


As Wikipedia says: "While the word is generally used in a deprecating sense, it may imply a measure of respect for language skills, or frivolity, among various other benign usages."

I'm still signed up for the "say interesting things" approach to art, so bullbutter (my new favorite word) is not automatically in or out. But then again, I appreciate Koons.

At 1/31/2012 8:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And I also feel that one night clowns will eat me, but maybe that's sharing too much.

At 1/31/2012 8:21 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Really, I guess what I'm getting at is that paraphrasing a poem could possibly be a bullbutter detector. But that doesn't, in and of itself, reflect automatically on if the poem's a good poem or not.

At 1/31/2012 8:25 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

Right, which brings us back to where we started. What is the value of paraphrasing? Un-paraphraseable lines could be boring or amazing. Same for paraphraseable lines.

At 1/31/2012 8:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Right, because we are reading in a context, and that context will necessarily demand things from us that will normalize sense. Non-sense could be continual nonsense, always just yada yada, or it could be other-than-one-considers-sense. or it could be some other thing entirely.

So, in my mind, paraphrasing (and the attendant “explain”) is something that at times will be of interest to me in regarding a poem and at times not of interest, or help, I guess I should have said.

Do I feel like “explaining” Lyn Hejinian’s My Life? talking about her method of construction does, I think, help. So that “explanation,” for me, would be helpful in some fashion. But do I want to paraphrase it (or any of the individual poems)? No. For me, paraphrasing it wouldn’t be helpful to my reading.

But then again, trying to paraphrase it and failing might be instructive, as it would produce nonsense, which then could be put to other, more interesting questions.

At 1/31/2012 8:42 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

Paraphrasing My Life sounds like a really fun Oulipo project actually. Dibs!

At 1/31/2012 8:58 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

My Life is the perfect example of a book you can't paraphrase. This one writer I met handed it to me and dismissed it as, "just fragmentation" but it totally blew the roof off of my skull and I couldn't say why. I still can't.

I can go into the moves and talk about composition etc, but that only goes so far. It establishes that it's not just soup (still, there are days we crave this), but nothing short of reading the text and spending time with it will open it up for you.

At 1/31/2012 10:27 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

This is not my favorite kind of text to write or read, but here goes:

The paraphrasable content of an extraordinary poem doesn't necessarily have to be extraordinary, and an extraordinary concept for a poem is not a sufficient condition for an extraordinary poem. But if a reader desires to understand (eventually) a poem he or she admires (or most of it), then at some point that reader will paraphrase the poem. And, in paraphrasing, take stock of what is expressed and how he or she reacts to it. If what is expressed is trivial or repulsive (of course factoring in authorial distance from personae), well, some readers will back away from the poem.

If no one admires the poem, no one's going to bother with the paraphrase. But then, each of us is at least one reader.

Your mileage may vary ought to go without saying -- but I do also think taste or judgment is a valid subject for discussion.

At 1/31/2012 10:38 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Unparaphrasable lines could be amazing or boring. That's true. It would be difficult to hold those lines in mind, except by memorization, but that's not a strike against them. Neither does it make paraphrase of no value whatsoever.

I guess I'd have to see these unparaphrasable lines to know what I thought about them. And I'd probably wonder about a poet who only ever produced unparaphrasable work -- why don't they want to communicate anything in their art made of words? Did something happen to them?

At 1/31/2012 10:57 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Correction: not necessarily a strike against them.

My point is that my understanding of a poem has something to do with the judgment I make about the poem. You may be right, that may be an idiosyncratic position that doesn't apply to anyone else. I doubt it, though.

It sounds to me as though you are expecting me to say that if a poem cannot be restated in prose, it is invalid. I don't think I'm saying that. (I do probably set more flying language poems aside than poems where I have to put together a world. Sue me -- I'm old, and most of the people who did something new with flying language and who I trust are gone.)

I don't enjoy sounding so cranky. Leaving me out of it, what do you hold to be the criteria for a poem's amazingness or boredom-production; and more than that, how would you talk about making sense of what you read.

At 1/31/2012 11:09 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

"My point is that my understanding of a poem has something to do with the judgment I make about the poem."

My point is, you don't have to be able to paraphrase a song to "understand" it (especially a song with no lyrics), and I'd say the same is true of many poems. Approaching every poem the same way you'd approach, say, an instruction manual is the wrong way to read poems as text. Yes, poems include words, but they communicate in fundamentally different ways than other kinds of texts. In some ways they are like instruction manuals, but in some ways they are like music or paintings (i.e., they can be described, but not paraphrased).

At 1/31/2012 11:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I feel like the Coldplay of this conversation.

Jordan, I’m largely in agreement with your comment above, beginning “This is not my favorite kind of text to write or read.” But I want to try to distance myself from this part of your further comment: “And I'd probably wonder about a poet who only ever produced unparaphrasable work -- why don't they want to communicate anything in their art made of words? Did something happen to them?”

Perhaps, and examples help these discussions, we’re just talking differently about similar things. For instance, I find most of Ashbery’s work resistant to a close paraphrase, and I, well, adore his work. That’s where I’m coming from, when I speak of paraphrase as being of very limited help in talking about how and why one loves a particular poem or poet.

I have paraphrased some Ashbery poems here and there (on this blog, for instance), but it’s not my favorite text to write. I feel there is communication, as in business writing or speaking, and then there is communication in (is it Hejinian that says this?) the “thought transfer” manner, where what is communicated is not clear argument.

So anyway, we’re all on an arc of practice as readers and writers. And “sense” is a large part of it.

I like work that I can approach less as an argument than an “experience with flashes”. I’m kind of a fragments person. I like things to mean, yes, absolutely, but that’s not precisely the same as communication and paraphrase. I’m not saying it is for you. I’m saying this is the assumption I’m reacting against in the original post, and these subsequent comments. So I’m probably reacting less to you than I am some imaginary Mark Halliday!

At 1/31/2012 11:28 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I don't even approach every poem the way I approach "The Instruction Manual." But poems are made of words.

I understand that there are different kinds of language games, and that the language game we call poetry is characterized by strenuous and frequent changes of the rules. At the end of the poem, though, the poem will still be made of words. One possible response to those words is to try to make sense of them.

Flashes, fragments, slipstream, Appalachian ballad, Apollinairean continuous present, Coolidgean spelunking, Lynchian montage -- whatever. The act of interpretation is not the enemy of these kinds of work.

At 1/31/2012 11:33 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I hate having all my books in storage. The Coolidge issue of Talisman, if I'm remembering it correctly, had some beautiful paraphrases by John Yau of pieces from Solution Passage. In my faulty memory, Yau's essay, like Sukenick's Stevens book or the amazing thing I saw in the iTunes store of a complete set of summaries of every strip of Calvin and Hobbes, just set paraphrase as a baseline. Not a be-all end-all, but a way to agree on terms, to start a conversation. I'm lousy at starting conversations, though.

At 1/31/2012 11:34 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Geez, a lot of guys in my examples.

At 1/31/2012 11:48 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I can also easily agree with this: “The act of interpretation is not the enemy of these kinds of work.” It’s now just a question of what one means by “interpretation.” Even, really, what one means by “paraphrase,” as I’ve seen many forms of paraphrase over the years. Even, really, by “close reading.” These all becomes bumper stickers where we often think we all are talking about the same thing when it turns out we’re not.

Anyway, I’m cool with paraphrase, but I’m cool toward relying on it as the first marker of value. I find too many people ready to throw out a piece of art (poetry mostly) because they can’t find an easy paraphrase, or they can’t quickly paraphrase. The H8Rs give “paraphrase” a bad rap.

That, and I've seen some bad paraphrases of poets such as Rae Armantrout that are anything but helpful.

At 1/31/2012 11:49 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

I'm all about "interpreting" and "explaining" but I maintain those are different processes -- broader and more inclusive -- from "paraphrasing."

And, at 60 comments, I'm out. Laterz!

At 1/31/2012 11:52 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

On Bullshit:

I think it's an interesting subject for real.


At 1/31/2012 12:21 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Paraphrase not, lest ye be paraphrased.

At 1/31/2012 1:21 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

If the poem is good, the paraphrase is not the poem; if the poem is bad, the paraphrase is the poem. But if paraphrase is impossible, the poem isn't valid.

Yvor Winters split with the New Critics on this; they said the real value of a poem cannot be paraphrased; Winters said, if you can't paraphrase a poem, it's not a good poem. But as you see from what I said in the first paragraph above, they were not that far apart, and, in fact, the whole issue is rather a plain one.

I find much more interesting JC Ransom's formula of lemonade v. NACL, in terms of how a 'message or moral' (M) combines with a poem's aesthetics. (A) Does it do so in a simple manner (lemon plus sugar) or complex (NA + CL)?

At 1/31/2012 2:09 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Which is why people run screaming from paraphrase, apparently (too reductive).

At 1/31/2012 2:57 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

"If the poem is good, the paraphrase is not the poem; if the poem is bad, the paraphrase is the poem. But if paraphrase is impossible, the poem isn't valid."

I'll spare you my long critique of this assertion and just give you the paraphrase: huh?


At 2/01/2012 6:17 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


If you cannot comprehend that "assertrion," certainly no paraphrase is going to help you. In fact, I'll go further. I don't think anything is going to help you.

You are on your own, son.


At 2/01/2012 6:19 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

And so it begins (or continues).

At 2/01/2012 7:22 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed. We’re back on the slope into Twelfth Night:


If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourselves into stitches,
follow me. Yon gull Malvolio is turn'd heathen, a very renegado;
for there is no Christian that means to be sav'd by believing
rightly can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He's
in yellow stockings.

Sir Toby:
And cross-garter'd?

Most villainously; like a pedant that keeps a school i'

At 2/01/2012 7:44 AM, Blogger underbelly said...


(or is it Dad, now?) your last explanation is so convincing that I'm inclined to just assume you're right and to give up on this poetry business. But first I'll take the blame for my lack of clarity and tell you more specifically what I find troubling about your assertrion.

When I hear judgments concerning things like "validity" attached to art of any kind, I sense the creep of mathematical certainty normally associated with formal logic into one of the few gardens that I (strongly) believe should be walled off from such thinking.

Valid /invalid poetry? Do really think we should be talking in these kinds of terms? And if so, who gets to decide which is which?


At 2/01/2012 8:15 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Validity. Yikes. I tend to exit out of some of these opportunities for reflection, especially with such comments as the one from Tom above, more quickly than I perhaps could. But today, for instance, the sun is out, and it’s going to get to 60 degrees. You know?

At 2/01/2012 8:37 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

"give up on this poetry business"

Yes, Paul, you might want to consider it.

Look, the New Critics are the pedants, not me. The dyer's hand, etc.

60 degrees? I'm afraid that won't stop me. If we were in paradise, I'd still hound Paul. I'll see him in yellow garters yet.

At 2/01/2012 8:51 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

John, agreed, let's enjoy the day. I'm on right now to assess the validity of the sun.


At 2/01/2012 9:16 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

typing on his computer "let's enjoy the day"


(I hope you know this kidding is good-natured...)

At 2/01/2012 9:17 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


But if you can't look at it long enough to do a close reading, how will we know if your critique is valid or not?

At 2/01/2012 10:27 AM, Blogger David said...

Tallow Lamp
by Paul Celan

The monks with hairy fingers opened the book: September.
Now Jason pelts with snow the newly sprouting grain.
The forest gave you a necklace of hands. So dead you walk the rope.
To your hair a darker blue is imparted; I speak of love.
Shells I speak and light clouds, and a boat buds in the rain.
A little stallion gallops across the leafing fingers--
Black the gate leaps open, I sing:
How did we live here?

At 2/01/2012 10:28 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

Fuzz, if you try a close reading, you get a hell of an after image ... the kind of thing that was great fodder for early phenomenologists (before they went blind).

I'm not so up on the state of academic disability insurance around Marburg back in the day. Or today, for that matter. Maybe I'll keep reading at night.


At 2/01/2012 10:29 AM, Blogger David said...

Perhaps my favorite "elusive" poem.

At 2/01/2012 10:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yes. You must trust your own encounter with art.

At 2/01/2012 11:23 AM, Blogger David said...

Next day at the New Yorker ...

MR. ELINOFF: So, J. Peterman wants to hire some of our cartoonists to illustrate your catalog?

ELAINE: Well we're hoping that if perhaps the catalog is a little funnier, people won't be so quick to return the clothes ha ha ... For example ... I really do ... Well I love this one ...

Elaine shows him the cartoon.

MR. ELINOFF: Oh! yeah ... That's a rather clever jab at interoffice politics don't you think?

ELAINE: Aha, aha ... yeah ... but, why is it that the animals enjoy reading the email?

MR. ELINOFF: Well Miss Benes, cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn't dissect gossamer. heh..hemm..

ELAINE; Well you don't have to dissect it, if you can just tell me, why this is supposed to be funny?

MR. ELINOFF: Ha! It's merely a commentary on contemporary mores.

Slides the magazine to her.

ELAINE: But, what is ... the comment?

She slides the magazine back to him.

MR. ELINOFF: It's a slice of life.

ELAINE: No it isn't.


ELAINE: I don't think so.

MR. ELINOFF: Vorshtein?

ELAINE: That's not a word. You have no idea what this means, do you?


ELAINE: Then why did you print it?

MR. ELINOFF: I liked the kitty.

At 2/01/2012 1:41 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Swordfish Larynx

Black the geezer leeches open, I skateboard:
how did we live here? A bogey bulldozes
in the ramrod. A little stapler
gaols across the leafing imparted;
I speak of lychgate. Shoals I speak
and lime coachwhips, and hang-gliders.
So dope you deaden the wake. To your halibut-
nozzle a darker bobsleigh with the newly
sprouting so-and-so. The fortune-teller
gave you a neuron; the moos with hairy
fire-eaters opened the bordello:
September. Now Jason perambulates.

At 2/01/2012 3:20 PM, Blogger David said...

Nice ...a surrealist paraphrase. Elusive!

At 2/01/2012 6:32 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Did it reach 60 degrees?

At 2/02/2012 6:32 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Some observations phrased as weary questions:

Why does this have to come down to law-and-order versus anything-goes.

Why does poetry prompt black-and-white thinking everywhere it goes.

How can anyone claim to understand something they can't put into their own words.

Who says it's so important to understand any given writing -- besides the writer and the critic talking about it, that is.

Who cares what critics have to say -- besides publicists and publishers, that is.

At 2/02/2012 7:01 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

"Why does this have to come down to law-and-order versus anything-goes?"

You'll have to show us your ID before you can ask that question.

"Why does poetry prompt black-and-white thinking everywhere it goes."

Because fuzzy poet bear ate the rainbow.

"How can anyone claim to understand something they can't put into their own words."

Are these your own words?

"Who says it's so important to understand any given writing -- besides the writer and the critic talking about it, that is."

Oh, the writer and critic don't understand. Don't let them fool you.

"Who cares what critics have to say -- besides publicists and publishers, that is."

psst! publicists and publishers don't care, either!

At 2/02/2012 7:15 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I don't really think anything goes, but telling myself anything goes helps me get down some wordplay I might be able to carpenter into a poemlike thing. I like a little frontier justice when I'm wandering the wilderness of words.

I see Manichaean thinking almost everywhere, not just in discussions of poetry. It symptomizes the prevailing lack of imagination.

Understanding isn't of paramount importance. I enjoy many things I understand imperfectly or not at all.

I care very much what some critics think.

At 2/02/2012 7:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Jordan,

I like these questions. And I’ll give a different take on responses:

“Why does this have to come down to law-and-order versus anything-goes.”

It doesn’t have to. This is my continuous battle. It doesn’t have to. But people like Tony Hoagland (my favorite example of this, but there are others) feel it’s something like a duty to police the rabble. I don’t agree. I think art is a large field and people go there to find very different things, and with many things in tow. I'd rather phrase it as "whatever works goes," myself. But that's just me.

“Why does poetry prompt black-and-white thinking everywhere it goes.”

Again, yes. But it doesn’t always. I think the comments stream here is an example of other than b&w thinking for most of the comments. There was disagreement, but it wasn’t absolute. But for some people it’s important to have rigid boundaries. I think, honestly, that’s a great minority of people who encounter art. It’s just a very vocal minority, and one that, through force of argument, often can bring along others who wouldn’t go there otherwise. This is the case in the culture in general, unfortunately.

“How can anyone claim to understand something they can't put into their own words.”

This is the place where you and I are of slightly different minds. Perhaps it’s in the phrasing or in my assumptions, but I don’t encounter art (poetry) with this in mind. Perhaps I do, because I talk about art a lot with people, “put it into my own words,” but that is less a prerequisite for appreciation than an outcome of my enthusiasm. I also am not sure what to do with “understand.” I think of the art encounter, the art experience, much more than I think of understanding it. Kind of like life, I feel that living with art is how I understand it. But maybe I’m being too woo-woo in saying that. I’m really not much of a woo-woo person otherwise.

“Who says it's so important to understand any given writing -- besides the writer and the critic talking about it, that is.”


“Who cares what critics have to say -- besides publicists and publishers, that is.”

I care about what critics say when I feel they’re doing a disservice to the art. So when Hoagland or Logan or whomever says something that I feel flagrantly misrepresents something or essentializes or reduces it, I feel I must say something in response. It’s this feeling I have about the repeated story becoming the “truth.” I feel there’s a larger world in poetry than what the culture at large is lead to believe though the very few examples of poetry they let through the cracks. (Usually. I’m greatly heartened when a poet such as Rae Armantrout can somehow get through those cracks!)

At 2/02/2012 7:30 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

David, I like that, about the frontier. I just wish the frontier didn't turn into the mall so quickly.

Speaking of malls, I wish the centers of towns hadn't turned to stone so quickly.

You're dead right about the general lack of imagination -- hostility to imagination, in fact. It seems to coincide with a wish to communicate, to be understood instantly. But understanding isn't usually instantaneous.

Once I'd entered into a few contracts, I eventually discovered some value in the irritable reaching after fact and reason.

At 2/02/2012 7:35 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Tom, that's funny about "fuzzy poet bear." I know there's a difference between Care Bears and My Little Pony (and Strawberry Shortcake and the Cabbage Patch Kids, for that matter), but do you think the whole Broneys thing is real, or a put on?

At 2/02/2012 7:37 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, I seem to recall "whatever works" as a phrase from a fairly blue Daisy Fried poem. But yeah. The pragmatic approach. (I've been trying to get together a group to go with me to Pragmaticon for years.)

I wish the pragmatic majority weren't so easily hijacked by vocal minorities, myself included.

At 2/02/2012 7:38 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh no! Join us! We serve dessert first!

At 2/02/2012 8:15 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Thanks, but you know how it is -- too dogmatic for the pragmatists, too pragmatic for the College of Cardinals. On the plus side, my mens' chorale is doing "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times..."

At 2/02/2012 10:30 AM, Blogger David said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/02/2012 11:14 AM, Blogger David said...

When I present a poem that I have written, do I want my audience to fully understand it or deeply enjoy it? Saying "both" is not allowed. One of these things must be my heart's desire.

At 2/02/2012 11:16 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I enjoy what I don't understand and I don't understand what I enjoy.

At 2/02/2012 11:23 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

"How can anyone claim to understand something they can't put into their own words."

I like to think of this in relation to other art forms, particularly ones that aren't themselves made of words.

I can talk about, or talk around a painting or piece of music, but I wouldn't call this putting it into my own words.

Given this, can I speak of "understanding" a painting or piece of music? Even if I've studied it? Or made it?

This might be a more interesting question, because it either stretches or diminishes the idea of understanding. I suspect there's SOMETHING understandable in everything we find worthy of loving. And maybe also by necessity some things we can't understand.

I think it's unfortunate that simply by being made of words, poems can lead us to expect a narrower, more encompassing, less ambiguous version of understanding.

That expectation doesn't seem to serve us well.


At 2/02/2012 11:39 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

What if enjoying is understanding?

At 2/02/2012 11:40 AM, Blogger TL said...

Hey John,

I know you don’t like/agree with Hoagland’s criticism, but as someone who is most often skeptical of skittering poems, I found his essay on them helpful. The poems he put forth as being better, I thought were better, at least according to the criteria he set up. Anything might go, but some anything-goes-poems are better than others, right? If you don’t like Hoagland’s criteria, outline your own and lend a hand to a skeptic like me, who dislikes feeling like an unbeliever among the converted: “To those who believe, no explanation is necessary. To those who don’t believe, no explanation is possible.”

I also frequently feel, in the face of certain poems, like the person who doesn’t get the joke. If someone paraphrases the joke, is forced to explain why it’s funny, although the moment will be lost, I might become savvier, less skeptical next time around.

In addition, and more persuasive from my perspective, would be if people describe how they react to and/or interact with an “elusive” poem they love. (I’m using the term elusive poem because you did, but I think most good poems are elusive in some way but not necessarily in the way you mean.)

At 2/02/2012 11:49 AM, Blogger David said...

I believe that intelligibility is written into every created thing, because "in the beginning was the Word" (although I readily acknowledge that not everyone shares this belief), yet the ultimate intelligibility of Creation exceeds the grasp of our created intelligence. Thus it follows (for me, at least) that the Poet has a duty to at least try to make himself understood, yet his humblest and most realistic hope (which reflects the strict Object of his craft) is that in the attempt he will have made his poem enjoyable.

At 2/02/2012 11:54 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

"What if enjoying is understanding?"

David, I wonder about that, and while it seems there's something to it, I suspect there isn't enough to it.

For one thing, I deeply enjoy things that I'm sure I only superficially understand. This is often like admiring Chinese poetry for the pretty brushstrokes.

Likewise, there things that I understand pretty well, and don't enjoy at all. Like the work of certain recent Poet Lauretes, or how to clean the bathroom.

The idea starts to feel itchilly like the old "beauty is truth" saw.


At 2/02/2012 11:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi TL,

I hesitated when writing Hoagland’s name above, but I went ahead and did it as shorthand. I don’t disagree with everything he’s said, just every other thing. One of the things I think he has done is use poems from his workshop to use as examples of failures of a style. That’s fine and all, but not really the strongest evidence.

I’m good with the Hoagland criteria of some poetry, but it simply doesn’t work on all poetry. That was the point I was trying to make. So it’s not really that I would replace Hoagland’s approach so much as say it shouldn’t be universalized, which I feel he attempts.

The more persuasive bit that you mention, I completely agree with you on. Yes. The best way to answer it would be to put it in practice, and I’ve tried to do that on this blog, especially on John Ashbery’s poetry, which I feel is often given short takes, either in praise or dismissal or some inevitable third thing.

At 2/02/2012 11:57 AM, Blogger David said...

What if enjoying is understanding?

It's a fair response, David, and one which I considered in framing the question. My reply is that understanding cannot be the object of the poem, because the intelligibility that the poet chases is so ultimately ... elusive.

Bear in mind, I'm making this up as I go. The question is a thought experiment for me as well.

At 2/02/2012 12:01 PM, Blogger David said...

This is often like admiring Chinese poetry for the pretty brushstrokes.

Or how the New Yorker editor enjoys the cartoon about interoffice politics for the kitty. :-)

But is poetry, like humor, really like gossamer?

At 2/02/2012 12:07 PM, Blogger TL said...

Is it too silly to ask: Why do you enjoy the elusive poems you enjoy? What gives you pleasure about them?

I keep thinking of my reaction to Eliot. I loved 4Quartets and hated TWL when I first read them as a freshman in college. It was only about ten years ago after I read some criticism on TWL and then returned to the poem that I finally came to appreciate it. I still like 4Qs better, but I no longer have the hostile, skeptical feelings about TWL that I first did. All the footnotes and criticism in the world wouldn’t have helped me understand and/or appreciate TWL at 18 though. I needed life experiences I didn’t have back then to make the connection.

At 2/02/2012 12:13 PM, Blogger TL said...

"One of the things I think he has done is use poems from his workshop to use as examples of failures of a style. That’s fine and all, but not really the strongest evidence."

I don't think that's fine. I mean unless he was taking workshop poems that were subsequently published, but if he is comparing published work with his students' workshop poems, that strikes me unfair, both to his students and to his essay readers.

At 2/02/2012 12:22 PM, Blogger TL said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/02/2012 1:08 PM, Blogger מבול said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/02/2012 1:24 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hoagland, I don’t think, has made a habit of doing that, but he did do it in one of his essays that I think I talked about on the blog, where he criticized young poets for emulating Dean Young poorly, and he used (unpublished) examples from his workshop to back up his claim. That, I thought, was not helpful.

What I like about elusive poetry! I feel like this post, in some ways was a love letter to elusive poetry, though maybe it didn’t read that way to others. Yes, talking about something helps (TWL, for example) some people, just as NOT talking about something helps others.

I’m all for the conversation. I just don’t like the idea of criteria, when they start to feel prescriptive, or like a recipe. It’s like love. The criteria come after the love is already in flower. I think, at least.

At 2/02/2012 1:49 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

TL mentioned 'not getting the joke.'

Maybe in order to get a better grasp of the elusive we need to go back to the Greeks and look at Comedy and Tragedy.

Comedy = exaggeration to suggest an ill.

The *recognition* of the ill causes laughter, not the exaggeration, which is only the means, nor do we laugh at the ill, itself; in fact, it might be said it is the*swiftness* of the recognition, which truly provokes the laughter.

After all, Tragedy, too, forces the audience to recognize an ill. It is perhaps the *means* of recognition which is different and separates the two genres, Tragedy and Comedy. In Tragedy we don’t recognize the ill *swiftly.* Tragedy does not produce laughter, but rather suspense, and reflection, as the ill *unfolds* in a *slower* manner.

Exaggeration of effect gives the game away, so that we know immediately if it is Comedy or Tragedy.

I suppose there are sub-genres which shoot to hell my thesis…

Does this help at all?

At 2/02/2012 1:56 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

What we're calling elusive poetry is enjoyable because it keeps me guessing. Maybe wondering is a better word, but I feel like no matter what we call it someone will spin it negatively ("Your guess is as good as mine,", "I wonder what they were getting at").

To echo what John said earlier about living with it, there is a certain generative quality to this kind of writing that gets me in an associative mood. Each reading produces an experience unlike any other.

Of course, this happens in all poetry, but in the kind we would not describe as elusive, I find it stops at some point. The sense of wonder, of new possibilities, does seem to slip away.

However, I understand people not enjoying it, too. Uncertainty, especially in regards to life obligations and all sorts of "real" things produces incredible stress. The people I've seen react most passionately against this kind of writing usually bring a lot of hostility towards it.

I'm not sure why.

At 2/02/2012 2:44 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I can't choose understanding over deriving pleasure, nor can I choose the converse. I can't see understanding and pleasure as mutually exclusive. The wisdom that paraphrase distills from the poem is only instrumentally valuable in that it leads to pleasure; "admiring...the pretty brushstrokes," on the other hand, leads to pleasure as well. Knowing what idea the brushstrokes convey merely enhances a pleasure already aroused by the brushstrokes' prettiness.

Anyway, I tend to think a poem is written "solely for the poem's sake," as Poe wrote, not to inculcate a religio-politico-philosophical message. And many poems I enjoy I can't really paraphrase, but they have an emotional subtext I can feel holistically. They move me via an appeal to the senses.

At 2/02/2012 6:06 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

I love this:

" Perhaps I am interested in poetry that qualifies as good bullshit."

Yes-yes-yes! Poetry as sophistry! Truth which depends on construction, placement, subterfuge! This seems to me a very healthy locale, to recognize that meaning is made not, necessarily, a soulful miasma which floats about.

adam strauss

At 2/03/2012 10:26 AM, Blogger David said...

I can't choose understanding over deriving pleasure, nor can I choose the converse. I can't see understanding and pleasure as mutually exclusive.

This is all quite true, of course. Indeed, my pleasure in reading a poem often increases with my comprehension of its meaning. Just yesterday, I experienced the greatest pleasure in listening to Richard Burton's reading of Hopkins' "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" (a poem that I had never heard or read before), yet the meaning of the poem mostly escaped me (although bits and pieces of semantic sunlight pierced the mounting waves of verbal music). Subsequently I read the poem while listening (several times) again to Sir Richard's masterful reading. The meaning of the poem unfolded to my mind with increasing clarity, while the pleasure of hearing it intensified.

At 2/03/2012 11:57 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Hopkins ("The Wreck of the Deutschland" is a favorite of mine) and Dylan Thomas sound so wonderful read aloud that you can enjoy them without grasping their meaning. Thomas, of course, is the opaquer of the two.

At 2/04/2012 8:28 AM, Blogger TL said...

“Yes, talking about something helps (TWL, for example) some people, just as NOT talking about something helps others.

I’m all for the conversation. I just don’t like the idea of criteria, when they start to feel prescriptive, or like a recipe. It’s like love. The criteria come after the love is already in flower. I think, at least.”

When I used the word criteria, I knew that wasn’t quite right. Too clinical, and as you say, John, potentially too prescriptive. And as we all know, the best chefs don’t follow any recipe like an instruction manual. Maybe what I’m wanting is a list of ingredients. Or observations made while reading, but Fuzz points out why that desire gets thwarted:

“What we're calling elusive poetry is enjoyable because it keeps me guessing. Maybe wondering is a better word, but I feel like no matter what we call it someone will spin it negatively ("Your guess is as good as mine,", "I wonder what they were getting at").

To echo what John said earlier about living with it, there is a certain generative quality to this kind of writing that gets me in an associative mood. Each reading produces an experience unlike any other.”

The kind of elusive poetry you guys are talking about makes me wonder. It makes me wonder why I don’t get it, and what that says about me (what’s wrong with me on a bad day). I don’t want to be hostile and skeptical. I don’t think it’s that I don’t like uncertainty (a good poem to me is not one dimensional) or that I’m lacking in imagination. But maybe I do approach some poems unimaginatively. The question is why.

My prejudice is this: When I read certain poems I don’t think of myself as free associating from the language presented; I think of myself as getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind, the labyrinth of the poet’s mind and/or the labyrinth of words randomly presented. For the most part I don’t find that interesting, pleasurable or useful. I do find the process lifelike though!

So where John feels love and Fuzz feels wonder, I feel pointlessness, self-indulgence, a continuation of the status quo. I “associate” the reading process with thinking rather than with imagination, which isn’t the way I normally approach a poem. Normally I would approach a poem using thinking, feeling and imagination. Now that I’ve mentioned feeling, I realize that’s what’s missing. Where you guys feel pleasure, wonder, love, I don’t feel anything at all. Or I feel bored, confused, frustrated, impatient, hostile, skeptical, narcissistic. I’m trying to remember what that last label goes back too. My best guess is that it goes back to reading Jorie Graham years ago. I'm not trying to bash Graham. I‘ve never returned to her work, so my initial, youthful reaction to her poetry most likely reveals more about my ignorance than it does about her approach.

One thing’s for certain. My approach to elusive poems is not as receptive as it could be. Still I have hope. Sometimes people fall in love with someone they couldn't stand at first. I feel betwixt and between. Some poetry I used to like, I don't like as much anymore. So I'm searching. Looking for love in all the wrong places, eh?

I’m glad you started this discussion, John. You must have read my mind because I’d been toying with the idea for a couple of weeks of bringing up the topic here, and then you did it for me. I appreciate the discussion thread that has followed. These sorts of discussions often do devolve into hostile exchanges, and I’m glad this one hasn’t.

At 2/04/2012 1:24 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


Read the essay "Poets Without Laurels" by John Crowe Ransom.

I still have no idea what any of these guys mean by 'elusive.'

That essay will clear it up for you.

At 2/04/2012 5:55 PM, Blogger TL said...

"Read the essay "Poets Without Laurels" by John Crowe Ransom."

Hey Tom,

Do I have to? LOL I want to say I've never read the essay, but I think I did read excerpts from it once upon a time. BTW, when I tried googling the essay, one of your blog entries came up as the second item on the list. Small world.

At 2/05/2012 3:41 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


"Poets Without Laurels" is reprinted in "Praising It New -the Best of the New Criticism" ed. Garrick Davis, a nice little volume you can probably get for cheap.

Also in the volume, "Criticism, Inc." by Ransom, where you can see how the modernists decided the university was the place to go...


At 2/07/2012 2:56 AM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

I don't think anybody has commented on the Shapiro poem you end with. What struck me is that, despite your quotation from Smock, it gives fairly clear instructions about how to read it: look for analogies, uncertainty, double exposure, what's "somewhere behind the curtains."


Post a Comment

<< Home