Sunday, February 19, 2006

One way of categorizing poetry (a way of thinking that's currently useful for me as a writer, and not meant to establish boundaries in a canon) is to split it into two major tendencies: in one, the poem is the vehicle for something (descriptions, thoughts, ideas, arguments, feelings) that's expressed through it; in the other, the poem enacts something. It produces an effect or, if something is expressed, the poem expresses something that couldn't exist except in that configuration of language.

I'm sure that all, or almost all, poetry does both of these things to some extent and, taking this categorization purely theoretically, one could stretch it to say that all writing effects something in addition to the thought "put in" from "behind" it... but that stretched version isn't very useful to me as a practicing writer who'd like to figure out how to write poetry that tends strongly in both these directions at once.

Of writers I like, Bruce Andrews might be a good example of the second category. "Content" is definitely a problematic notion in his work, though motifs of various kinds do accrue over the course of a book. Brecht's poems of the late '20's and early '30's might be an example of the first tendency; they're basically vehicles for the clearest expression of ideas and their problematizations, or of situations and the ethical quandaries they imply, and poetic form and materiality of language are meant to serve that goal of clarity.

I've been thinking about this for a while now, and only recently did I realize that many of my favorite poets could be said to have negotiated these two tendencies successfully. Both Rae Armantrout and Ron Silliman write poetry full of precise description of objects and situations, as well as witticisms, puns, and declarations, and the writing of each has a very powerful and specific effect; I come away from their work with a heightened awareness of my usual ways of isolating and connecting things, as if a model of habitual consciousness has been set out for explicit examination, and thus dehabituation.

Lyn Hejinian's last handful of books, and much of Rosmarie Waldrop's work, are full of philosophy (quotations of Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Heidegger, James, etc.), and they also enact philosophy--they're thought at work, more than presentations of thought external to the writing. Hejinian's The Fatalist articulates a concept of fate and, by extension, temporality, that's never fully stated. Other recent work articulates philosophies of perception, or of what "beginning" means in its varied manifestations. These philosophies are open, not strictly defined, and aren't the result of the content of the quoted philosophers' work; the latter are more likely to function as compositional material (just like sensory description is material). The theory in these poems is built from examples (for instance, occurrences of kinds of beginning, temporal language having to do with beginnings, "opening sentences," descriptions of beginnings), but the examples have their own life, their own weight--they're examples of the world, stages in thought at work, not pieces of evidence for a pre-constructed philosophy. Reading the work is a process of participating in the thinking as it happens (a quality of the best philosophical writing, but here freed from the urge for argumentative progression that often sabotages the openness of the freest philosophy).

How is this done? I want to spend more time analyzing this work (particularly Hejinian and Waldrop, as I've spent, and continue to spend, a great deal of time thinking about Armantrout and Silliman). Studying the poems in depth will, I hope, bring some of the vaguer ideas stated above to precision. Political and philosophical thinking are both extremely important to me, and I'd like to be able to write poetry that contained explicit statements in both these areas without that explicitness taking away from the less "communication-oriented" effects and enactments produced by formal strategies, juxtaposition, sound and rhetorical energies, and without those tendencies toward witholding coherence of content making the concrete statements seem like mere examples of an abstract template.


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