Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tony Hoagland: Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation Pt III

[Ohio University Press has come out with a book of craft talks, taken from visitors from the Spring Literary festivals over the past ten years or so. They cover fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All proceeds go to assist graduate student scholarship opportunities. It’s well worth a look. The title is LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. Edited by Kevin Haworth and Dinty W. Moore.

The following is the final part of one of the essays. My reaction (I found it highly problematic) to the version of this essay that appeared in Gulf Coast (which was slightly different) back in 2009 can be found in the post just below the first part. ]

CAN A POEM engage some of these self-conscious, anti-nominative (anti-denotative?) conventions, and handle content at the same time, in a nonconventional but truly enlightening way? Can gamesmanship, and a preoccupation with means, combine itself with meaningful, purposeful ends? It’s not clear how the new conventions will combine with the old, but some new poems demonstrate new territories of possibility.

One final, intriguing example of litany, and of the New Poetry’s relationship to style, gamesmanship, and representation, is Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem “Or,” a poem produced by a “system” of using words grouped around the syllable “or.” Ellis’s poem presents a radical strangeness: it is a stylistically, “technically” intensive poem—declarative, it doesn’t use the personal pronoun, or even much grammar. Impersonal and challenging, ominous, “Or” is a broken text, as well as an example of a “procedural” poem. The conventions that it invents, however, serve to deliver content in a new way—its way of saying has all kinds of implications about what it says.


Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category


or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”


or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora


or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or Senghor


or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort


or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry


or fear of . . .
of terror or border.
Or all organized

Disjunctive? Yes, “Or” omits transitions. In fact, it has no verbs, or as the poet-critic David Antin would say, it “omits explicit syntactic relations.” Which is to say it leaves syntactic relations implicit. It offers no discernible narrative, no essayistic argument. The jumble of the poem is held in place by the repeating syllable, as well as the frequent rhyme in the poem—these are the prosodic cohering agents of the erratic, dented, irregular dance of the selection in the litany. For yes, the poem is a list. That list is not really a “progression,” which is to say that its ingredients don’t escalate except through repetition; they don’t accrue a meaning that grows slowly in import and precision. Yet the poem has a powerful undertext of experience: the history and present of American racial estrangement.

In Ellis’s poem, the energy and mystery characteristically generated by ellipsis creates a poem that is something like a riddle—enigmatic, terse, dark; the identity of the speaker is repressed—there is no pronoun, no verb of action—but the dark subject matter oozes through; we sense the context of the poem—racism—leaking through the fragment. Dickinson says that art is a house that tries to be haunted, and it is striking in this example how alternative aesthetic devices make that no less true; the poem is haunted by the subject of American race history. The indirectness of the poem, its enigmatic stance, its randomness of signals (the way “born poor” and “Moor,” “Yoruba” and “Electoral Corruption” cast a kind of unevenly distributed net of inference) allow a kind of menace of subtext to loom behind the poem—a haunting. Here, not knowing the intent of the speaker, not having intimacy with the speaker, works because it implies a lot of possible speakers that readers can imagine.

Ellis’s poem brings us to an important aesthetic crossroads: the intersection or interface between representation, expression, and construction. Ellis’s poem is not “organic” in any conventional sense—it does not arise from a discernable story, its content does not seem to preexist its form. In fact, one of the sources of the poem’s energy is that it does not exist entirely either for its means or for its ends. Rather, they are commingled in the invention of the poem. At moments we might say the poem is making its way forward on the improvisation of the linguistic game; at times it is more emphatically asserting the referential urgency of its buried subject matter.

I N   E A C H   O F  these poems, the act of naming is central, but radical differences in poetic emphasis are visible, from the representational (paying homage to the cat Jeoffry), to the theatrical ingenuity of language (a Kama Sutra position called “Representational Democracy”), to the tactile wit of language unhinged from function (“A dart is the jimmy of a limousine”), to the veiled, scrambled code words of a suppressed social history (“of Yoruba”). In each of these poems the act of naming is positioned in greater or lesser tension with the agenda of sense-making, with the desire for meaning. That dynamic dialectic (between sense and song) has always been a part of poetry, but the New Poetry is informed by new tensions, new understandings (the instabilty of language), and new possibilities. It shows no preference for narration, description, or confessions of the autobiographical self. It seizes hold of a radical new plasticity in signification, and thus—as has been the case in other revolutions—poems of the New Poetry head off in dozens of distinct directions. However, these diverse New Poets share some fundamental characteristics—they have an instinct for gamesmanship; they are stylistically and technically intensive; their starting point is the indeterminacy, the innate unanchoredness of language (which can animate either affirmative or negative impulses). They feel the plasticity of language. They also feel an obligation to approach knowing in new, often oblique ways. They might be called Experimental or Avant-Garde poets, but these labels seem, in 2008, encumbered with baggage—it seems better that they simply be called poets of the New Poetry.


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