September 07, 2005

Super Essay: Poetry

I have had certain conversations with Timo - concerning the possibility that poetry is useless and has defined itself into obscurity. Further to that, I will post this excerpt from my "Super Essay" for Modes of Writing last year. Your thoughts please.


I remain attracted to poetry, inclined to read it and write it, fascinated by its possibilities. I feel, though, that I have to justify this attraction, especially when poetry is increasingly seen as either useless or irrelevant. Pointless, even. My response to this is that poetry can do things that no other kind of literature can. The capacity of language to question and undermine itself, to explore not only form but the very meaning and basis of form, is only fully realised when language is distilled to its simplest state.

When this happens, poetry stops describing and representing, and starts to evoke. Somehow, this element of self-questioning allows the poem to have a more direct and visceral evocative effect on the reader. Poetry, I have found, works by pushing buttons in the reader, by drawing on their own emotions and impressions. I am not sure why this is, but I can best demonstrate it by referring to William Carlos Williams.

Williams is like a magician who breaks the magician's code. His poetry lays bare the techniques of representation that constitute the functioning of poetry, and indeed of language itself. However, even when this sense of representation is revealed as an illusion, and you are freed of the notion that there is something to which the poem refers, the sense of wonder remains. “The New Clouds” appeared in the last of my lectures this year, read by Jeremy Treglown, who said that the pertinent thing about the poem was its resistance to paraphrasing. With that in mind, I'll reproduce the whole thing here.

The New Clouds
The morning that I first loved you
had a quality of fine division about it
a lightness and a light full of
words upon a paper sky, each a meaning
and all a meaning jointly. It was a
quiet speech, at ease but reminiscent
and of praise – with a disturbance
of waiting. Yes! a page that glowed
by all that it was not, a meaning more
of meaning than the text whose
separate edges were the edges of the sky.

The ostensible topic of the poem, “the morning that I first loved you”, turns out to have no substance – it does not constitute an event, even though it is the poem's subject. The real subject of the poem seems to be the poem itself, as “words on a paper sky” would suggest. The part of the poem that stuck me on my first reading was “a quality of fine division”. A phrase so nebulous, a phrase that does not refer to anything in particular, and that describes its invisible subject in the most vague terms, ought not to constitute good poetry, but this line remains evocative. Not evocative of any one thing, but rather having the effect of inducing a reaction in the your mind, a visceral feeling of that fine quality.

Williams' poetry demonstrates the capacity of poetry to evoke experience. The very basis of his poetry is experience. The lecture in which I discovered “The New Clouds” was on the topic of “Writing Writing”, set in the context of discussing how literature can reflect on its own creation. The writer's creative process is the first sort of experience that poetry makes us consider. But a poem is given life in the experience of the reader. Poetry like Williams', that can question its own function and stability, in doing so puts the experience of the reader to the fore.

The reading of poetry, for me, is changed completely by the act of writing it. I cannot imagine gaining pleasure from the reading of poetry and not, in the same moment, wanting to express myself in a similar way. I have found, though, that studying poetry closely, as opposed to just reading it, has afforded me a different way of seeing poetry: a more critical eye, which is aware of poetry as a continuous tradition and will register how a particular poem stands in relation to its predecessors. The close study of poetry has also influenced how I write. I find myself incorporating the sort of language that undermines its own validity and meaning, as Williams did.

I do not think the aim of my poetry is to collapse in on itself and leave the reader with nothing. This is somewhat of a foolish aim. I do not think that Williams had this aim: even in the most obviously self-referential poems you are left with a very real, evoked feeling, and you are able to appreciate the poem as an object in itself, like a work of art or music. Jeremy Treglown pointed out how the vowel sounds in “The New Clouds” are the basis of the poem’s linguistic beauty – they rarely repeat within a line, and the lines in which they do are thus immediately noticeable. Indeed, the best poetry can be compared to music in its ability to stand alone as effective and affecting art, whilst meaning nothing.

This new element to my poetry is not a theme, and does not constitute a postmodern agenda or message to my work. It simply comes from an understanding of how language works, its limits, its capacity to distort and obscure. I feel, in a sense, honour bound to acknowledge to my reader that I am involving them in a gross deception. Also, including this fallible, self-referential language is another technique, another trick. For the reader to realise that she is not passively absorbing meaning but actively creating it, and that the author was party to the same process of mutual creation, is exhilarating – as I have found in the reading of William Carlos Williams, e e cummings, and other poets. Self-aware poetry can trick the reader into participation in the creative act.


I should explain my approach to this as a writer with some particular reference to my own poetry. When I began writing, my poetry was about romantic admiration and obsession, about expressing emotion. Even then, I was very concerned about the capacity to distort with words, as the last verse from this song lyric attests:

A hologram you,
transparent and bright,
is made out of light from the stars,
but you are in motion
and you are not here,
you live in the daylight.

I was obsessed for a long time with the idea of the hologram – a representation of a person, made of light, convincing and three-dimensional but also unreal, translucent in its brightness, immaterial. I concluded that relating to another person necessitates building such a hologram image of that person, which reflects your own views more than it represents that person. And when you are in love, or at least in some way infatuated, the image of your beloved becomes exponentially more vivid – more real and at the same time less real. It is this sort of infatuation that first fired my poetic imagination.

To write is also to create a hologram, as my song lyric suggests. The lyric itself describes a inner space, a dreamlike place of darkness under stars, and the subject of the song – obviously absent – is yet present in the creative imagination of the persona, who sees her face in constellations (constellations being arbitrary patterns recognised between stars, having no real substance or constant nature, unlike the stars themselves). The lyric deflates these imaginings in the last three lines, which basically assert that the artist cannot capture reality.

I felt the need for these final lines as a sort of disclaimer, an apology on my part to those unfortunate enough to be made holograms of. I do not feel the need to apologise any longer. This is not to reflect on the personal ramifications of writing a poem about someone you know, concerns that are often overstated anyway. It is to say that for a poet to undermine poetry completely, asserting that reality cannot be captured in words and therefore their poems are as good as useless, is no way to go. It is no way to carry on writing poetry.

In my more recent poetry, I attempt to do quite the opposite, unapologetically. I will evoke all that I can of a person, in full knowledge that it is a distortion, but gleefully anyway: colouring in the gaps of my experiences with my very own felt tip pens. I have found that, if poetry attempts this full-hearted, imaginative evocation, it naturally comes to acknowledge its own limits, its own inability to accurately evoke. So my poetry nowadays does not include the all-pervading disclaimer, but instead has scatterings of paradoxes and ambiguities that gently suggest the limits of language.

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  1. Something cropped up when we were talking about this, which is perhaps worth putting up.

    I think poetry only really has an audience of one. Either it is addressed to the poet himself, or to another individual. For me, that is why poetry has become marginalised, because of this narrow field. It is no bad thing, but it does make it less accessible to others.


    09 Sep 2005, 13:42

  2. Hannah

    As discussed the other night, I disagree. I see your point, and think that poetry can only have the intended meaning for for the writer, but part of the beauty of writing poetry is then to see all the different interpretations people can get from one poem. Sure, it has different meanings, but it can still be enjoyed by everyone. In my opinion.

    13 Sep 2005, 13:59

  3. But doesn't this lack of focus in a single direction weaken the force of a piece? It is well and good that you can get about 50 different interpretations from a particular poem, but doesn't this mean that each of these interpretations is hazier and less intense, because the poem hasn't gone in a particular direction, it has just sat there as an aesthetic object?

    16 Sep 2005, 12:33

  4. That makes no sense. Meaning is not a limited resource. Meaning is more intense if it is personal, if it comes from yourself – which is exactly why ambiguous poems are written, so you have to bring your own meaning, like bringing your own drinks to a curry house.

    The best poems just sit there and hum aesthetically to themselves, waiting patiently for you to bring them to life.

    16 Sep 2005, 19:38

  5. Sure, I'm talking shit.

    16 Sep 2005, 22:51

  6. It's like bringing your own drinks to a curry house, sitting down, drinking them, enjoying the decor and music, then going home. You've got no waiter. Writing with purpose and direction gives you a waiter, who presents you with a menu, and you can choose what to take from it. The selection may be limited, and there may even be a chef's special recommendation. But it is much more nourishing and satisfying then sitting around, getting drunk and having a sandwich. You may appreciate the surroundings, but you will leave as empty and unsatisfied as you went in.

    Similie reversal. C-c-c-c-c-combo breaker!

    17 Sep 2005, 13:57

  7. Well, why don't we just flog the metaphor for all its worth. It's what we usually do.

    17 Sep 2005, 22:58

  8. I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. I like working in tandem with an author to uncover meaning, you prefer to be left to your own devices.

    18 Sep 2005, 12:38

  9. No, I agree that meaning is made in tandem… to be "left to your own devices" would be to have no poem to read, surely. I just balk at your idea that it's somehow better for the author to railroad you into his/her own preferred interpretation. In any case, I don't think our argument relates to poetry any more.

    18 Sep 2005, 16:06

  10. Ok, ok, flogging the metaphor a bit further…

    Tim, the very fact that you're presented with a menu in the curry house implys there's a choice. With poetry the menu just happens to be bigger, that's all. With prose, more often than not it's the same meal, just with a different choice of side dishes or sauces. But no restaurant (or poem) will offer an unlimited menu of meanings.

    Now I may be talking shit.

    But can I just say I love the idea of a poem "sitting there and humming aesthetically to itself" much in the way of Teddy Robinson.

    20 Sep 2005, 12:54

  11. Joe: I don't think it is better, it is purely a matter of preference. And I hate railroading as well, I like the middle ground, between a piece of writing that is one dimensional and one that has no direction at all. I like writing that does something or says something, even if I then do the opposite or violently disagree with it. I don't want the author breathing down my neck, but I like him/her there nearby, not sitting on the other side of the room, humming aesthetically. I'm a people person, I like some company when I'm reading is all :)

    I restate that I'm not saying my opinion is right. It's just my opinion. Right or wrong, better or worse don't really factor into this argument.

    20 Sep 2005, 15:52

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