Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Note to Self in Light of a New Day Rising

The next time someone asks you the following questions, and you aren't too nervous/befuddled/bewildered to answer, try saying in a calm voice some or all of the following (esp. because the people asking the questions are not only kind and gentle and super smart, but they want you to answer well; they are on your side):


Q: You have said that, "...poetry is, for me, the best and most human way we have of mis/using and mis/managing language to achieve primarily aesthetic results, i.e. beauty and excess, marvel and terror." What do you mean particularly by "mis/using and mis/managing language to achieve primarily aesthetic results" and how would you take that into the classroom?

A: Wittgenstein said among many other things that "[In language] Meaning is use," which assumes that language is an activity done in various ways in various contexts, and meaning results in/from the practice of speaking, writing and/or thinking particular words, sentences, paragraphs in a context where they make sense. Words have denotations and connotations, and they mean variously depending on the home you give them in whatever language-game (W's term) that you happen to be playing, e.g. giving directions, reading a map, writing a love letter... In all these language situations (language-games), there are ways of proceeding that we all commonly understand, ways that make sense. Truly, we all use language in our everyday lives, and it works pretty well, practically speaking. We can have a conversation about the war. Or you could ask me directions to my house, and I could answer. Usually we have no problem going to a restaurant and ordering off the menu, and some of us can even read and understand tax forms... but getting back to the question...

To use language in poetry, i.e. poetically, one has to ratchet-it up or down, create in it some surprise, or find a way to make its surfaces reflect or point to its depths, etc. Notice this isn't the same as giving directions or reading a map. Poetry requires paying attention to language in a totally different way, with a totally different sort of interest, e.g. one doesn't read a poem to get from Boise to Topeka, but one might read a poem to get to Heaven.

One way, then, to mis-use language for poetic purposes would be to take, for example, as Paul Violi has, an index (which is a perfectly functional formal structure with rules for how it must be put together, how it functions, how it means) (see his poem "Index" from his book Splurge) and to transport that structure into the context of a poem--where practically speaking it doesn't belong and doesn't function IN THE WAY IT FUNCTIONS ORDINARILY. "Even though a poem is composed in the language of information, it's not part of the language-game of giving information" (Wittgenstein). It's part of the language-game of writing a poem.

With this in mind, mis-managing language in poetry is a little easier to describe--distortions of syntax, strange juxtapositions, repetitions--for instance, Gertrude Stein's "diamonds in the in the sky" or John Berryman's "There sat down once a thing on Henry's heart, so heavy" (both deliberate mismanagements of ordinary syntax to create disorienting, dramatic and/or de-rationalized effects). Another way to mis/use language poetically would be to break perfectly workable language--say an article from a newspaper--into random de-contextualized/de-rationalized fragments. Of course, the managment part, then, would come in when one starts arranging the fragments anew, i.e. when one starts making choices about them moving toward a new kind of sense, poetic or otherwise.

In the classroom, it's fairly simple (or extremely complex, depending on the result you want to produce) to show students ways of doing all these things, largely by using models and coming up with exercises. For example, have the students take perfectly good lines from prose or poetic sources and repeat things in them (ala Stein) or twist the syntax (ala Berryman) OR have them actually follow Tristan Tzara's instructions in HOW TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM to demonstrate and discuss mis/management (and in that case the total destruction of meaning). Then have them take the fragments they've produced (via the process of tearing an article apart) and start arranging them into something new--collage by its very nature as a composition of fragments is one way to manage material, etc.


Q: What's the difference between teaching a grad workshop and an underground workshop?

A: Well, with grad students one might reasonably assume that you're dealing with people who have made some real choices about writing--both in terms of working to be a writer and also in asserting their own voice(s), passions, and alliances. With that in mind, the teacher's job is to prod and pound and challenge, as well as to be a critical sounding board for the students' BIG IDEAS. What I mean, I think, is that in addition to pointing students in the direction they're already headed in their writing (with more examples, more reading, more assignments that prop them up), it's also the teacher's job to deliberately point them in wrong-headed directions, i.e. to force them to confront, wrestle with, and even take on untenable/antagonistic positions that undermine they're own aesthetic. For instance, to make them live with procedural poetics for a while, or write only sonnets... Give the students parameters to work with and against, and call them on it if they start to work within them. Obviously what you'd suggest would depend on the individual student--their writing and their interests.

I also think that in any workshop--undergraduate or graduate--that writing, critical response (description, analysis, interpretation), READING (writing corollary and extension), and the articulation of the things one is writing and reading (both verbally and in prose) are key.

Use an anthology: Allen's New American Poetry 1945-1960 is still relevant and a great resource, but Rothenburg-Joris Poems for the Millenium double volume is also pretty friggin' cool. Additionally, for undergrads esp., Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms is killer and his "Gimmicks" article at poets.org is also excellent starting-line material.

Bring in other poets (on paper or alive if you can catch 'em) and examples of poetry and poetics and journals and chapbooks and and and...that you think will move the students. A dose of the new newness of the week always makes for fine discussions/arguments/flame-ups/explosions!

Write your own exercises and do everything you ask your students to do.

Poke and prod and challenge (both your students and yourself). Repeat as necessary.

Like a good Boy Scout (because I am, after all, a boy, and because in the classroom it's a necessity whether your male or female or rhinoceros): Be Prepared: (to react and to reactor).

3) Matt's own question to himself:

Q: Has Matt Hart really lost his mind?

A: Tune in next time to hear him say, "BEWILDERMENT INC!"

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