Thursday, June 19, 2008


Alexis Orgera was kind enough to comment on my "THINKING ABOUT...." post, and as a result we've had a good conversation (via email). With this in mind, I asked Alexis if it would be okay to post some of what was said here and she agreed. What follows is Alexis' comment on my post and a portion of the conversation which ensued.


Orgera: Ok, but when does a poem become too self-indulgent? And can we talk about Notley, b/c I need a "way in."

Hart: Maybe you could tell me specifically what in my post made you think about that, and I'll be happy to address it.

Orgera: Hmm. I think I was reacting to #15 "deliberately absurd dis/connections as a way to work in spit/e of oneself." Though I agree with most of what you say before this: resistance as a sort of active, deliberate recklessness, the point is the poem, the desnos quote, I begin to bristle when we talk about being deliberately absurd. I think this is because I feel like poetry only happens as a natural result of opening up oneself to whatever needs to arrive. That sounds cheesy and whatever, but I feel like an act of deliberate manufacturing makes craft a crutch rather than allowing craft to be the below-ground river. Maybe I'm full of shit and grubbing with semantics--especially because what I was really thinking when I wrote the comment was: I can't read "in the pines." I think it's self-indulgent which is sometimes forgivable if the language is alive and flowing in some way which I can't see in it. To me, self-indulgence has nothing to do with subject matter, rather it's about whether or not you can actually communicate something in a sonically soulful way. ie. poetry is not prose. I'm not a theory person. I don't like writing out of theory, but I do love craft coupled with passion and, as you say, a pushing against one's own boundaries to explore new territory. Now, of course, there's my whole notion of apophenia. Making connections where connections might not be thought to exist. Is that deliberate absurdity? Or is it training your mind to see the connections in everything? In the end, I'm not really disagreeing with anything you said, it turns out, but thinking about what it all means.

Hart: I think what I was trying to get at is the notion that "poetics" is always about the poet (it's a way of seeing that sets the grounds for proceeding), but in the act of writing it has to be about the poem, i.e. getting the self out of the way, so as to be able to open "oneself to whatever needs to arrive." In the moment of writing, one has, first and foremost, to listen to what the poem wants to do--where it wants/needs to go. So at the same time one is getting out of the way, one's managing intelligence has to remain a "shell self" to navigate and articulate the poem's motion and trajectory. It's a balancing act, but one that requires first becoming a fly on the wall, and the "deliberate absurdity" stuff reflects the fact that for me this is a rather violent process. In other words, I'm not very good at stepping quietly into the ether for the sake of the poem, so I have to trick myself into it (by any means necessary), and this often involves undermining, sabotaging, or otherwise flying in the face of my own impulses, interests and desires for what the poem should be. Otherwise, no poems get written. I guess the larger point is that we often have to give up what we know and expect (or what we think we know and expect) in order that good poems get written at all. That Alice Notley poem is significant for the fact that it manages to be a sonnet in spite of the vastness of its hurricane. Additionally, as my friend Kiki Petrosino pointed out, the poem is a lament, it's crying. Now crying can be self-indulgent, sure, but my sense is that this poem, and Notley's poetics, is ferocious. One of the things that I think is so marvelous about it is that it seems to be urgently trying to communicate, while being simultaneously indifferent to whether we understand the communication--the point being that it's enough to FEEL its urgency...

Alexis: Re: getting the Self out of the way for the poem, its violence. I see the deliberateness in that. I think that the poems I've written in the last year or so have been such a process of "purging" almost, an automatic logic, that I forgot about the work it usually takes to be free of expectations going in. I'm finding it again, though, as I sit down after a period of dry months. I sit at my desk, say fuck, and stare at the page and/or screen, depending. So, yeah, I guess we are agreeing here! Oh, and lastly, crying can be self-indulgent, but it can also be terribly beautiful.


Mathias Svalina said...

Great conversation. I'm thinking about Zukofsky's idea of sincerity that it's "the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.” I've always had trouble reconciling his seeming belief in being able to understand a thing in some sort of fundamental way, but i love that idea of directing them along the melody & I see that being connected to what you're saying.

I'm often unnerved by phrasing like "getting out of the way" of a poem. I hear it as a romantic notion of the poem as product, that it is not a thing the author creates but something almost Platonic that a poet must understand about the world.

But I also understand the feeling of being in that state, when words just mean & mean & mean.

It seems to me that the trance-like idea of getting out of the way of oneself is partially an act of training, similar perhaps to the kind of muscle memory one gets in construction or maybe closer to Zukofsky’s idea is to say it’s similar to the internalized scales of a practiced musician, and partially an act of prepping oneself to be aware of useful incongruities.

One thing I think separates you from Zukofsky is the idea of focus – his focus, no matter how disjunctively his later poems may read is direct & closed, whereas I think you’re discussing a focus that is more open. You are writing with a poetry that takes the gaps as a genuine prosodic element. It's the recognition of when a gap is a useful one that i think makes what you're saying interesting.

One can open a dictionary to two random pages & bibliomantically choose two words & there will be some connection made by the juxtaposition. We've learned that enough through religious & literary history. But to construct something that maintains a function sense of identity in addition to play of linguistic torsion (& here I'm thinking of your poetry, Matt, which does this), the gaps that happen must coalesce.

There’s something importantly non-intuitive, yet equally importantly guided & therefore intuitive to this coalescing process. The ability to tease out the usefulness of these gaps is a kind of poetics, as I see it in your list below. A theory of poetics is backward-looking, taxonomical. A poetics is a process of becoming, both in the production of poetry & in the understanding of poetry. Writing along the line of the melody means to me allowing the poems to create its meaning in both rhetorical & super-rhetorical ways, or rather creating a brand new rhetoric with each poem.

OK, I've babbled enough. Thanks for the discussion!

Matt said...


I love the way your comment takes the discussion in a whole new direction, only to bring it back around in the end. And I think you're right on about the need (I and some others have) to manage the gaps in meaningful ways--ways that coalesce into something more than just a disruption or a tear, but that taken together act as very present, necessary notes along the melody of the poem.

I like too your distinction between getting out of the way of the poem (which might, as you note, imply something more romantic than I'm after--although I am for better and worse more romantic than what I'm after...) and getting out of the way of oneself as a means of paying attention to the movement of the process of composition.

There's more to say here, but I'm crunched for time. I'll come back to it.

Thanks so much for your comment.


Alexis Orgera said...

I, too, like thinking about this in terms of music, esp. the "internalized scales of the practiced musician." Until you can play those scales in your sleep, you can't really understand the building blocks of composition, nor do you have the skill to realize your vision. Right? Same with poetry? It's a perfect framework in which to talk about craft, without which there is no experiment. I also like this notion of coalescing the gaps, where gaps mean just as much as the language itself, where they're boisterous. I've been stuck on the spiderweb metaphor for a couple of days. Not necessarily unique but fitting I think.

Finally, could we talk more about "a poetics is a process of becoming"?


Matt said...

"A theory of poetics is backward-looking, taxonomical. A poetics is a process of becoming, both in the production of poetry & in the understanding of poetry."

I think that what Mathias may be getting at here is something I agree with wholeheartedly, namely that a theory of poetics isn't (shouldn't be?) something rigid (that one uses to bludgeon each poem he or she writes onto the page), but rather something more fluid, which is addended with each new poem that gets written. To write "along the line of the melody" Mathias notes above, may mean something like allowing the poem "to create its meaning in both rhetorical & super-rhetorical ways, or rather creating a brand new rhetoric with each poem." And to me this goes back to the idea that 1) a poet's articulable theory of poetics at any given moment is always and only descriptive of what he or she has already done, and as such 2) it's foundational, but hopefully (at least for me) somewhat passive in the process of writing, i.e. a theory of poetics is a guide, but not a cage--at least not one with a lock.

What's interesting is how any new poem one writes will look just like other poems that one has written, but also not like those previous poems in significant ways (that is, when one is writing well--I don't presume that every poem one writes reinvents his or her poetic wheel). And describing/articulating/repeating in one's next poems these significant differences is what changes one's poetics to include the new rhetoric, strategy, consideration X.

Mathias Svalina said...

I agree -- the poetics is an act of becoming because it is from a sense of poetics that the poem-object arrives. Without a generic sense of what constitutes a poem there would be no poem, so perhaps poetics is a personal manifestation of the cultural ideas of genre. What makes a Matt Hart poem different from a Oni Buchanan poem is a kind of generic parameter of interests, mental maneuvers, diction-set, ideology & prosodic concerns. Therefore a poetics is an attempt to make sense of what one has done, but it should also predict its own obsolescence. The poets who get stuck reiterating their poetics often dwindle into doldrums -- i won't be catty & name names.

In that way, then my scales idea fails in that scales are (most often) a stable set in music, whereas my "scales" are inherently different than Alexis'. In a sense I guess i'm saying that in the place of the authority of the individual there is only a system of possible ways of engagement, ways of allowing the world through the node of the self. And to understand oneself as an artist is to understand how she can best "say something" through these processes.

In that way the poetics is not "about" the poet, but is the practiced understanding of what the poet is. I am a machine of engaging the world, with many different mechanisms.

Alexis Orgera said...

I'm not sure your scales idea fails, Mathias. Maybe it could be broken up into the major scales and the minor scales. Major being what every poet learns about the craft itself, i.e. the conglomerate history of individuals practicing this act. The minor scales, then, are the personal systems we construct and reconstruct poem to poem. You need components of both for music to be dynamic. Both scale systems become an historic act, or in terms of playing the scales, almost an act of muscle memory. Then, of course, you have to stretch your muscles if you don't want to atrophy. Ah, another metaphor. Speaking of which, I was reading some comics the other day and thinking about the gutters--those all important empty spaces that connect ideas and images (managing the gaps).

Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments on poetics as a process of becoming. Did either of you ever read Philip Levine's bio-ish book, The Bread of Time? In one chapter, he writes about Machado and how "the whole history of Castile is the history of Machado, an empire gone to ruins, and the moment which is his life, the lasting moment he lives and relives, becomes the place itself." Thinking about how "becoming" is a collection of experiences...

I'm out of time...