Thursday, December 14, 2006

From My Birdhouse to Yours

Here's a quote from Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years about Guillaume Apollinaire, which contains about as crystalline a definition of what I think poetry needs to be doing as I've seen in a very long time: "Apollinaire sought to take up a position that commanded all fields of poetic practice, traditional and experimental, and it is the intermingling of the two currents, not their distinctness, that represents his accomplishments" [itallics mine]. By my lights, this "intermingling of the two currents" makes more sense NOW than it did even for Apollinaire (by the by, I think it's swell if that was actually his project, but I'm not so sure it was...anyway...).

Almost a hundred years later (after Apollinaire), experimentation by itself (and for its own sake) is (still) no longer enough. As Dean Young wrote in a recent poem called "Leaves in a Drained Swimming Pool" (which you can see in the Nov./Dec. issue of APR), "[In poetry] We're trying to make birds not birdhouses." With this in mind, why settle for making something limited (for instance, a little object that only a few people in the universe can have any sort of meaningful experience with) when poetry at its roots has always been about delimiting possibilities -- the literal and figurative animation of inert materials (by any means necessary) to remind us of the human heart -- to connect us and include us, not dissect and exclude us...

By itself experimentation in poetry is merely (and I do mean merely) the employment/deployment of poetic parameters that fly in the face of more traditional/accepted/expected poetic parameters (and for that matter also of speaking and writing in general). The point is this: parameters by themselves (in the context of NOW -- that is, here, in the 21st Century) ALWAYS create birdhouses (this was in fact a necessary development in the history of poetry, poetics, and art, but one which has played itself out). The human element -- the actual person behind the poem, who makes it point beyong/outside itself -- is what makes a poem amount to something more than its describable, quantifiable poetics, i.e. the sum of its silly/marvelous little parts. For me, the intermingling of the the experimental and the traditional is key (and also almost impossible -- a reminder that in art we fail 99.9% of the time). Welcome to alchemy. Frankenstein. His monster. What we need ask of our poems is: real live birds -- not more fragmentation, not enjambment, not the invention/construction of new structures that are more interesting to talk about than they are to actually read, not mere appearances -- but rather something that has impact BOTH in/for poetry and our time and speaks NOT ONLY to poets, but to people as well.

I realize that almost everyone will disagree with this (in some sense or other), and also that some of it sounds like an ad for magic beans... or perhaps worse, romanticism. What can I say? So be it. I'll take values and idealism -- even the old worn out stuff -- over "anything-goes-no-values" any day. Perhaps this is because I teach at an art school where people make bicycles out of fat and try and pass it off as the "new newness" without any sense of history or purpose beyond the achievement of the thing itself. Perhaps it's because I'm tired of reading things that make me think too much and not enough about anything that matters to my life, or alternately, which traffic in flogged-to-death old/New American forms and contents...

It's not enough
to run headlong
as a football field

away from death.
One has to con-
front the wallpapery

lines in a notebook
and make

more than objects.
Words more than
objects. The world,

more than objects.
Indeed, the world
as deed. And so long

full of poets, brain-
ish-ly remodeling.

with poets, and
nothing much
saying --

[where O where
are all the people?]


Chicky Wang said...


Tony said...

Well-said Matt. I think I'm going to start a New Sincerity revival over at ye olde blogge. But this is what I've been (trying to) talk(ing) about.

Whatever happened to that manifesto?

Morgan Lucas Schuldt said...


Lester Shue said...

Nice Touch....

Marc McKee said...


Matthew Henriksen said...

We like to turn projects of the past into our own. And why the hell not?

Johannes said...


I enjoyed your rant. But I'd like to know what is an example of an experiment for its own sake? What makes it "for its own sake"? What is "tradition"? Or: which tradition?

I tend to think that every poem should be an experiment for its own sake, but we may not agree what "experiment" means. Or "sake" for that matter.

(Ie we may agree more about the poems than the poetics-rhetoric. I love Apollinaire too.)

Could it be that the idea of experimenting has become too limited, a description of a style as opposed to a process of composition?

(Afterall fragmentation and enjambment could be seen as rather "traditionally" experimental practices and thus supposedly exactly what you're calling for.)

There's all this discussion that treats "experiment" as a stable, set notion and that drives me nuts. People use the phrase "experimental poetry" as if everyone should know what that means.

Also, I totally disagree with any rhetoric that claims that art should not appeal to limited audiences. That seems to me to be a call for cultural homogenization. I would prefer a call for people to read things that they may have trouble to relating to at first. I think that kind of open attitude leads to a more multicultural poetry (and thus not "limited" at all).

Apollinaire: in "The New Spirit" essay, he's into being "classical" and the idea of France defending the world against Russian and Italian chaos-mongerers (Futurism). I prefer the Guillaume of Calligrammes. And the porn!

Anyway, all poetry is in some way engaged with tradition. (ie the Matt-H-argument). It's a matter of what tradition. My own sense of "tradition" for example is largely unavailable in English, thus making it pretty "limited." Should I ditch Gunnar Bjorling and start reading Stevens?


CLAY BANES said...

there's certainly an idiom of experimentation that always floats on a sea of already-assembled hands. it's a calm sea. even if it's got an archie shepp soundtrack.

Matt said...


Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my Birdhouse post, and I agree that “we may agree more about the poems than the poetics-rhetoric.”

By “experiment for its own sake” I mean, (as in a) poem which never amounts to more than its own wrangling with language as language the end. That said, I do think most poems probably do and should START OUT as wrangling with language as language for its own sake (and by “for its own sake” I mean just because we can). Furthermore, by experiment I certainly don’t mean anything static. Rather, I mean, an operation, technique, method, or mode of working that one employs/deploys just to see what will happen. In my own case, this is how poems have to start – as I never have any idea what I’m doing until I start doing it – which often requires (in order for me to write at all) parameters, which are sometimes quite arbitrary i.e. just because I can/must. Nevertheless, I would like to think that one then works (that I then work) to transcend the arbitrariness – to make the poem mean something beyond its process (these days the whole notion of a purely process oriented poem—a poem that means ONLY in terms of its process—seems fairly worn out and empty to me), i.e. I would hope that we not allow ourselves to be satisfied with the bald results of our experiments (for their own sake). Just because one uses a particular novel process to manipulate language in a certain way that re-shapes it (or re-contextualizes it or re-constitutes it, etc.) does not then mean that one has written a poem.

I would argue in fact, that it is our responsibility in the face of postmodernism’s value vacuum to find a way to make poems that once again ARTfully point both inside and outside themselves (to surfaces and depths both aesthetic and human). Or to put it, perhaps less controversially, in terms of what I want as a reader: I want the payoff for reading and “getting” a poem to be proportional to the amount and kind of work I have to do to read and “get” it. Why? Well, I guess because I find myself less and less interested in some contemporary writing which is: more interesting to talk about than it is to actually read -- more posture than it is substance -- more critique than it is speech -- more mere confusion than it is trying to understand or significantly contextualize its confusion. In fact, I’m less and less interested in that which is “interesting,” for, as Donald Kuspit writes in his book The End of Art, “The interesting is always rational rather than irrational.” In other words, I want to be astounded/ moved, etc. by a poem not only as a poet (who’s read X, Y and Zukofsky), but as a human being (who thinks and makes choices and feels things—things he can neither entirely explain nor fully understand).

It seems to me that nowadays in poetry, as in visual art, the old critiques – for example, making an anti-poem via a mechanical, totally (or partially) randomized collage process out of lines/words cut from a newspaper – or designating this or that found object as a work of art by signing it (or some other means of indexing it as such) – or playing with syntax to create interesting distortions – are no longer enough. Now we have to use these sorts of techniques (which began as critiques embedded in their time – and were, as such, perfectly legitimate, exciting, and moving when they first occurred) to do something beyond the merely technical (beyond the mere critique), which at this point in the history of art is not only boring, but merely serves to make art banal and unimaginative.

You know, I guess (and I do realize that this is where my ideas get SUPER mushy—both senses), I read poems for their guts and power to astonish infinitely. Am I arguing that our poems should be accessible to everyone? No way. On the contrary, I’m arguing only that in writing our poems we consider (take that as strenuously or as non-bindingly as you like—even a little will go a long way) not only our poetry but our humanity (which is unsayable, indefinable, and wildly mysterious/contradictory) as well. Thus, I want us to be in a position to use any means necessary to make poems that matter variously simultaneously rather than tying ourselves to the backs of whatever clever stable of one-trick ponies that go nowhere without a lot of prodding.

Anyway, I hope this clarifies my position in some ways (and muddles it perhaps in others). I really appreciate your response though. Thanks for the dialogue.

All best,


Johannes said...


I agree more with most of your post. I certainly think poetry/art should be more than one-trick ponies, and I agree that there is a lot of dry poetry being produced. However, I still disagree with your diagnosis of these symptoms.

I don’t think the historical avant-garde were one-trick ponies that should be relegated to the dustbin.

Even Duchamp wanted his hat-rack to look good (though he refered to the readymades as "distractions" made while doing more serious work), not to mention that he made the Large Glass, a work of art that I have thought about more possibly than any other art work, a work which could hardly be seen as a one-trick pony with its intersection between text and image, its codes and conundrums. My experience of that work is very much full of the "mushy" feelings you describe.

To me many of the historical avant-garde figures are very inspiring - they make up an anti-tradition tradition of innovation that inspires me and all that good old "mushy" Romantic stuff you mention (Romanticism being largely responsible for our entire concept of avant-garde). And rather than set up rules to follow, to me they seem to encourage to innovate, to redefine our relationship to language, technology and experience etc.

I still want to know what "tradition" it is you want to intermingle them with? And are these avant-garde movements totally isolated form this tradition? Can we imagine for example Eliot without various French avant-garde writings? Who make up the tradition? Poe? Whitman? They strike me as some seriously experimental writers (much admired by the Euro avant-garde).

What is the "tradition" you're talking about?

I guess my point is this: I agree that poetry should not be boring, dry, intellectual exercises. But I don't think the remedy is to return to some kind of "tradition" to somehow stop experimenting, but rather to forge ahead and come up with new experiments and ideas, to remain "absolutely modern" in a mutating world.

I would rather blame monolithic infrastructure of the poetry establishment, which teaches writers to follow, to imitate, not to experiment - but I have high hopes that journals such as your own (and my own, we have a new issue of just out) are breaking down those old hierarchies, creating something more lively, multiethnic... experimental..?