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Purity and Nonsense [Part 2] (by Brian Brodeur)
Thanks again to Jim Cummins, Stacey Harwood, and BAP for asking me to guest-blog. It's been an honor to share a few thoughts on poetry and teaching creative-writing with the discerning readers of BAP throughout the week. Please feel free to leave a comment here or "friend" me on Facebook if you'd like to continue any of these conversations. That's really what blog posts are supposed to be: the continuation, not the ending, of a dialog. Or at least that's my hope. Yesterday I posted the first half of "Purity and Nonsense," which explores Paul Valery’s notion of Pure Poetry as it might pertain to nonsense verse, particularly in one representative contemporary example: Charles Bernstein’s “Johnny Cake Hollow.” Below, please find Part Two, with this disclaimer: Part Two may not make sense for those who haven’t read Part One! 2. But Bernstein’s “psychotic break” is at least entertaining, providing a superior amusement (Eliot), a kind of toilet humor for the English major. His nonsense diction (anti-diction?) brings a parodic, even subversive element to the poem. The dominance of monosyllabic and disyllabic words, for example, and the recurrence of sounds such as “gar” and “oot,” suggest Old English, the poet’s attempt at approximating the sound without the sense. Here are a few words from Beowulf: “Hrothgar,” “Herot,” “Hnaef,” “Jutes.” And a few from Bernstein’s poem: “filgrunt,” “atsum,” “horay,” “bloot.” Unlike Beowulf, however, when read aloud, Bernstein’s coinages resemble noises the body exudes after digesting a heavy meal—an effect that, however infantile, serves as the poem’s punch line. This comical tone, achieved through the silliness of the poem’s sounds, becomes an antidote to Poe’s requirement that poetry, and pure poetry in particular, excite and elevate the soul. Bernstein aims for the cheap laugh—the class-clown’s whoopee cushion in sixth-period chemistry. Which is not to say that the poem is without strong feeling. Several emotions may result from reading or hearing it, including hilarity, bafflement, anger, and disgust. But, again, the poem’s resemblance to music offers the most potential for the emotive response Valery was after. In fact, if this poem is anything beyond nonsense, it must be entirely musical, a composition in pure language-sound, a kind of vocalese or scat sung to the “melody” of the ballad stanza. What these faux-language sounds call to mind, however, is anything but pure. Would I be pushing the metaphor too far by suggesting a buried, homophonic pun on “scat” (improvised nonsense syllables sung by a vocalist) and “scat” (animal feces)? Regardless, it is this unfortunate punch line that would appear to disqualify Bernstein’s poem from the title of pure poetry, at least according to Robert Penn Warren, who, in his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” lists the qualities in poems that prevent the work from achieving this end. According to what Warren refers to as “the modern doctrine of pure poetry,” poems that resist pure poetry, mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork and argument, self-contradictions,...
Posted Aug 8, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Purity and Nonsense [Part 1] (by Brian Brodeur)
Kenneth Goldsmith, the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural Poet Laureate, has been getting some press lately. With his pseudo-Dadaist philosophy of Everything’s a poem! Goldsmith has been regurgitating the perennial complaint that poetry is either dead or dying, infiltrating venues as public as The Colbert Report with his gospel of appropriation and “uncreative writing.” Clad in hot-pink pinstriped suits and bushy faux-fur coats, Goldsmith prescribes his miracle-cure to the masses (Poetry must go digital!), arguing that YouTube videos, image macros, and “hardcore programming” should now be classified as poetry. This radical redefinition, Goldsmith argues, is the only way to save the antiquated art from the obscurity it probably deserves. The following post, which I’ve divided into two parts (I’ll run the second half tomorrow), entertains another radical notion of what a poem and poetry can be, Valery’s concept of Pure Poetry, as it might pertain to the nonsense verse of Charles Bernstein: Goldsmith’s compatriot in the dim lands of Conceptual Poetry. Please enjoy. 1. In his 1933 omnibus “A Poet’s Notebook,” Paul Valery argues that a poem’s value is determined by “its content of pure poetry.” Like Poe before him, Valery believes that all texts contain fragments of pure poetry, “La Poésie pure,” which he vaguely characterizes as “a noble and living substance.” These nuggets of concentrated or distilled or absolute poetry exemplify what all writing aspires to be because pure poetry elicits the most powerful emotive response within the reader. So what is pure poetry? Does it exist in practice or is it merely theoretical—an ideal text, a kind of pre-existent model that occurs only in the poet’s mind as a prototype to be groped toward or imitated? And, if it does exist, are there concrete examples of pure poems in our time, or is it a concept unique to the “l’art pour l’art” of French Symbolism? And can these examples be pure poems in their entirety, or does pure poetry, as Poe and Valery insisted, only occur as fragments? Nonsense verse offers some fertile ground to explore. According to the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, nonsense verse is “not no-sense,” but rather a form that uses language in a non-referential way, making a kind of “shard-sense” or “new-sense.” Nonsense verse liberates language from conventional lexical meaning by trading sense for ur-sense, suggesting meaning by the sound of invented words. Because nonsense verse so completely abandons what Valery refers to as “the practical or pragmatic part of language,” the place where pure poetry does not live, nonsense verse seems the closest we have to music. And since music, for both Poe and Valery, is the art form that most often attains sublimity or “the creation of supernal Beauty” (Poe), nonsense verse, the hey nonny-nonny of poetic modes, seems a logical one to examine for evidence of the purely poetic. Charles Bernstein’s “Johnny Cake Hollow” is a representative contemporary example. Written without the signs and signifiers of actual language, the poem enacts a kind of radical minimalism that,...
Posted Aug 7, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
“Champion of the Obsolete Event”: An Appreciation of Richard Frost’s Neighbor Blood (Sarabande 1996) (by Brian Brodeur)
I’ve started taking an unofficial survey among poets and writers still young enough to be labeled emerging. Whenever I meet a new one, I ask if she's heard of the poet Richard Frost. Though most have answered no, a few have responded: “Didn’t he write Independence Day?” or “‘Good fences make good neighbors’? Duh.” Neither Richard Ford nor Robert Frost, Richard Frost is the author of three collections of poetry; a jazz drummer and founder of The Catskill Stompers; emeritus professor of English at State University College in Oneonta, NY; and the spouse of the poet Carol Frost (who many have heard of). So why don’t the under-forty set read Frost? One explanation is that the staggering achievements of his peers have overshadowed his own. Born in 1929 in Redwood City, California, Frost belongs to the generation of American poets that includes such masters as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin and Adrienne Rich, James Wright and Robert Bly, Philip Levine and Etheridge Knight, Donald Hall and Galway Kinnell, as well as William Stafford, with whom Frost sustained an enduring friendship until Stafford’s death in 1993. Another reason, equally plausible, pertains to the work itself. Frost writes in a casual, unassuming, and idiomatic style that privileges clarity over showmanship (what used to be referred to as “the plain style”). He alludes to classical mythology and literature with acerbity and humor. And many of his poems could be characterized as first-person narratives (that dirty word in Contemporary American Poetry), though not the period style of the Confessional Poets largely disparaged today for their solipsism, artlessness, and crippling subjectivity. While Frost certainly explores autobiographical material (adolescence, fatherhood, marriage, illness, death), the poems are not without the masks M. L. Rosenthal lamented the loss of in his 1959 review of Life Studies (neither are the poems in Life Studies, for that matter, which include four dramatic monologues). Over a lifetime of experimentation with “the old forms,” as Frost referred to them in a 2009 interview, the poet has cultivated a way of speaking about events as they happen on the page, meditating on dramatic occasions while still leaving the reader with a sense of the immediacy of what he reports. In “One Morning,” for example, the poet alternates between exposition and dramatic revelations filtered through the consciousness of a speaker who recalls the last day he spent with his only sibling who was dying of brain cancer. The poem begins: My brother’s wife phones me and says I’d better drive over right away for what will probably be the last visit, so I get in my mother’s old Buick and two hours later I’m at their apartment at Smugglers’ Village in Stockton. These introductory lines are most remarkable for their efficiency, even expediency. With a minimal number of words, the details the poet chooses to include reveal crucial information about the narrative. From the phrase “my mother’s old Buick,” for example, we can deduce that the speaker...
Posted Aug 6, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
On Corrupting the Youth (by Brian Brodeur)
During a recent conference meeting with a student in my Introduction to Poetry workshop, I experienced a rare (for me) fit of speechlessness. Actually, it happened twice. I’d asked my students, all undergraduate non-English-majors, to compose a list of three questions about their work, urging them to share any concerns they were too hesitant to voice in front of their peers. The most talented and driven writer in class—let’s call her Tiffany—asked two questions that made me squirm, though, in retrospect, they shouldn’t have. First, she grinned, glanced at the café table that separated us, and asked, “Is there always so much sex in poetry?” “Sex?” I said. “I mean, I’m not uncomfortable with it or anything. Just curious.” “Yes,” I blurted, “Always. Lots of sex.” A major preoccupation for Tiffany, sex informed most of what she wrote and said in class. She particularly enjoyed peppering our workshop conversations with innuendos. For example, as we workshopped a prose poem of hers about ants crawling over a “cleft” watermelon, she interrupted one of the less-promising male students with the quip: “Why do men say ‘vagina’ when they mean ‘vulva’?” The guy shrugged, blushing, and the class laughed nervously. Back at our conference meeting, it was Tiffany’s second question, commonplace enough, that really threw me, probably because of the earnestness with which she asked it. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her arms: “Should I keep writing, or am I wasting my time?” * I suspect those of us who teach introductory workshops like this harbor a secret fear that we’ll convert one or two impressionable undergraduates to the poetry life, as so many of us were converted. Who among our tribe doesn’t feel a slight pinch in the frontal lobe when that particularly eager student swings by the office with a new draft and the poem is actually good? What twisted neurosis compels us to encourage her, to say, “This is the real thing—keep writing,” instead of pointing out the grays around our temples, and warning her about the impossibility of surviving on the pittance she’ll make from publishing (if she’s lucky enough to publish); the competitiveness of the academic job market (if she wants to teach); and the general resistance our culture has to this craft or sullen art. I don’t mean to gripe about the unprofitability of poetry, which, if nothing else, insures that only those driven (or crazy) enough to write poems do, only those few “fellow oddballs,” as William Matthews dubbed us, who choose to work so hard for such meager rewards. Nor am I arguing against the importance of poetry and poetry writing in what used to be called a liberal-arts education, the fundamental goal of which is surely to create not only knowledgeable but empathic citizens of the world. Nor am I knocking the intellectual, emotional, and psychological benefits of an art that demands from its practitioners nothing less than absolute fidelity, compelling us to examine the outer and inner worlds with microscopic scrutiny....
Posted Aug 5, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
"It's like . . . it's like . . . I don't know WHAT it's like": On the Limitations of Metaphor (by Brian Brodeur)
Thanks very much to Jim Cummins, Stacey Harwood, and BAP for inviting me to share a few thoughts on poetry this week. I’m honored. I have four posts lined up: three micro-essays and a rangier post I’ll divide into two parts. These vary in subject from sexual innuendo and the ethics of poetry-workshops to the search for Valery’s “La Poésie pure” in contemporary nonsense verse. But first, a return to the basics. Here’s a nuts-and-bolts piece on the pleasures and perils of mixed metaphor, which I offer as a kind of pallet-cleanser. (See? The urge to mix metaphors is strong!) I hope you enjoy. * We all work with metaphor on a daily basis, but it’s still fun occasionally to remind ourselves of why. The limitations of metaphor are the limitations of language. “Language,” Emerson observed in one of his most aphoristic metaphors, “is fossil poetry.” As limestone is composed of the skeletal remains of ancient marine life (mostly coral), language consists of words and word-fragments: “images” and “tropes” bereft of their “poetic origins.” Though unable to trace the epistemological beginnings of most words, we imagine The Namers, the language-makers of prehistory, uttering the first vocalized representations of the world. Initially, these ur-words must’ve signified concepts like danger or objects like aurochs and fire. They also must’ve shocked both sayer and hearer with their onomatopoeic fidelity, how like they were the things they signified. Soon these grunts and clicks must’ve entered more philosophical territory, providing morphological figures for love and grief, god and beauty, heartache and song. These language-makers were our earliest poets. Today, neologisms work in much the same way, shocking us with their paradoxical nature: how strange they seem at first and yet how right. Once adopted into common usage, however, these new words mellow from their primary into what Emerson called their “secondary use,” losing some of the surprise that made them worth repeating in the first place. In short, the more a new word is spoken the more literal it becomes. Remember, for example, how much fun it was in the early 2000’s to use “google” as a verb, or the first time you heard about someone “Google-bating”? Now “google” (lowercase “g”) doesn’t even register as incorrect in Microsoft 2010 spell-check, though “spellcheck” still gets a red squiggly line. This issue of coinage suggests how slippery metaphors can be. If even the most seemingly concrete words are dead metaphors (“chair,” for example, or “bird”), can we actually differentiate between figurative and literal language? If such diverse animals as the Eurasian eagle owl and the Atlantic puffin belong to the same zoological class, aren’t they both “like” birds and thus like each other? I wonder if there’s a way to take the pulse of a word, to see just how living it is, how charged with vestigial figurativeness. Certainly there are degrees of figurativeness among words, and these degrees are relative to time (how long ago the word was coined) and frequency (how commonly it’s spoken). In...
Posted Aug 4, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
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