The “Elusive” Poem
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: http://www.aprweb.org/currentissue
“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.
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