The Hong Kong. Is there where Concrete Poetry finally met its end?
So the trouble with the contemporary poetry scene is it lacks focus, while at the same time a single thought throws its shadow over all: why don’t non-poets read poetry anymore?
We should focus on the single thought, since surely it is telling us something, while none of us are able to focus.
This demands an analysis, not haphazard, but of exactly what we seek: popularity. Our scientific investigation needs to ask precisely: what causes/what has caused strangers to read poetry?
Do we know this? Can we list reasons?
The first reason which usually comes up in discussion is: poetry has more competition from other media, from other forms of communication and entertainment than ever, but what we notice immediately is first, this is a reason people don’t read poetry; we must be careful to list reasons why strangers do read poetry. And secondly, poetry will always have competition: any activity that doesn’t involve reading poetry, and this is a rabbit hole we need to avoid, rather than blame other media. Let us dismiss this “reason” at once.
Before we list the reasons why a poem is of interest to a roomful of strangers, we should define what we mean by stranger: Two friends are having a conversation in a public place and a stranger advances upon them, eager to join the conversation. The resistance to this intrusion indicates the issue involved; work needs to be done to effect intercourse between strangers—and this work needs to be done with poetry as the medium; the poetic might not be doing the work, but the poem must nonetheless be at the center of the process.
When talking of popularity or fame, we mean a lasting impact upon a number of people, not a furtive reading of a poem on a sudden in the presence of a couple of strangers—why should humanity at large want to know your poem? This is the important question, that single question which dogs every poet and critic today.
You write of a street in your poem—strangers, being strangers, will not be interested in your street, unless there is something very special about your street—and then it becomes interesting because it is a street, not your street—the street, of course, is not poetry and we should not confuse the two;—describing their street would interest them, but you cannot do that, because you don’t know them or their street—for they are strangers. We have exhausted all the options, then, and a poem about a street cannot then, be popular. Imitate discourse between friends having a conversation about the streets where they happen to live and you will not produce a popular poem: you cannot know their streets; your street is not interesting if it is not theirs, and “a street,” if it have a special interesting feature does not require this feature to be conveyed by anything we might call poetry. Here is the challenge.
How do we write a popular poem, then?
There are questions—such as what is a poem?—that seem to have no answer because of the scope of the question. But if we eschew detail and use the scope of the question to our advantage, we can define the definition as one which excludes all that pertains to the definition itself, so that if the question remain unanswered as it pertains to anything, we can assume whatever this is, it is not a poem, and we can be satisfied that leaving all these objects aside that instill themselves before us as they are, whatever escapes the definition’s “not,” is then, poetry, as much as it satisfies our general idea informed by those elusive predicates which combine to portray what we believe (without knowing) is the essence of our search. Poetry is the essence of an essence, the former “essence” the result of our searching (as failure) and the latter what we mean by the question (whose conscious act of questioning is, by that act, a “success”).
To define poetry simply: Poetry is language which elevates any subject—now, this definition apparently rejects the subject as vital, and would seem to include form or language only-–always troubling to those who want poetry to be “important” and not simply about “style;” it is a definition too narrow and Victorian for our modernist pride. But the pride of the modernist is the ignorance of chronology, which peoples the 20th century with amazing things—things which inevitably bury not only poetry but any inquiry about it:—we are left with pedantry, half-theory and laughter.
To “elevate a subject” is not an action which ignores the subject; quite the contrary—there are subjects which will not be elevated and poetry is necessarily involved in best selecting the best subjects to elevate.
Further, poetry is not a text, but an action, for “to elevate” is an action—and so “subject” has a triplicate identity in the poem as
1. A generic vehicle: “any subject to be elevated”
2. A selective vehicle: “any subject worthy to be elevated”
3. A specific action: the “elevation” as subject
It is not only about style or form.
To return to the original subject: Here are reasons for a poem being interesting to strangers:
1. Mastery of that speech which elevates subjects worthy to be elevated in such a manner that strangers are convinced that that speech is poetry—of an excellent sort. Combined, of course, with all the usual notices which brings this poetry to their attention.
2. The textbook taught in the university for prisoner-strangers, i.e. Students
3. Legal issues which make news—Obscenity Trials, Freedom of Speech… Baudelaire, Joyce, Ginsberg
4. The poet famous or notorious as a person—Plath, suicide; Keats, young death
To return to our two friends having a conversation (emotion plus fact expressed) in a public space—cafe, bar, or restaurant—What notice from “a stranger” would they allow and even relish invading their private space that would have some kind of impact?
What if the TV flashed a news headline: Lana Turner Has Collapsed?
And with this, it is time to review our evening with Philip Nikolayev, Adam Kirsch, and Marjorie Perloff—the latter, best known, but all brilliant, well-known critics in poetry circles today.
These illustrious personages of the poetry world, in a panel at the Grolier bookshop in Harvard Square, pondered these ideas in public, perhaps in a more sophisticated manner than we are evincing here, but “sophistication” by now has become the poetry world’s undoing, and Perloff, et al, were refreshingly blunt and plain in their attempts to repair the present and point to the future.
The lack of focus in poetry today propelled the usual anxiety, expressed by the panel, and Scarriet crowned it with a question about popularity and fame, that evening at the Grolier, which launched in our mind the essay you are reading now.
As an example of “lack of focus,” Kirsch despaired that poets don’t seek “greatness” any longer; Perloff said no critic agrees on who the important poets of our time are, in contrast, for instance, to the wide concensus on the Eliot/Pound/Williams/Stevens/Crane/Moore modernist canon; Nikolayev scorned the tendency to forget “the perfection of the art” while focusing endlessly on the nuances of “poetics.” Some specific likes and dislikes were expressed: Kirsch (yea) and Perloff (nay) disagreed on the worth of Derek Walcott; Perloff confessed she found Elizabeth Bishop’s output too small to mark her as terribly important.
I had the good fortune to speak with Perloff after the panel presentation, and found, to my delight, a lively intelligence combined with common sense, even a love of the hoary, informing her person; she is not the avant-garde besotted figure she is reputed to be. She agreed with our judgement that Ron Silliman is far too narrow in his approach to poetry, and that a Coleridge revival would be a good thing. And Auden, the young don’t read Auden anymore, she said. This was refreshing, indeed.
In my question at the Grolier, a rant more than a question,(what do you expect from Scarriet?) but which nevertheless elicited some positive response, I briefly made the often-argued Scarriet point that Modernism/New Criticism/CreativeWriting as a joint venture relied on Reasons 2 and 3 above while eliminating 1 and 4; it is hard to argue this in 15 seconds; Perloff agreed with me the Modernists hated the Romantics but felt it was merely a rhetorical flourish in a forward-looking movement. But Eliot was a skilled versifier in the lyric Romantic tradition even as he publicly reviled Poe and the Romantics—and it was this Critical gesture, widely followed as the 20th century proceeded, far more than Eliot’s skilled yet tiny poetic output, as small as Bishop’s, even if we include that one oddball/dead end poem, “The Waste Land,” which has led to the current waste land of poetry today which Perloff, Kirsch, Nikolayev, and others decry.
Nikolayev responded to my question with the common sense ‘how can popularity be a standard when so much that is popular is bad?’ I pointed out that Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition” (which if you read you don’t need an MFA) mentions the standard sought for “The Raven” is both critical and popular; critics are still needed, even as popularity is seen as a good; and to stay focused on our goal we mustn’t give in to the false notion that popularity in itself is somehow bad (a similar error is to assume “difficulty” is a good) for we mean ‘the popular is good’ in the simplest manner possible, as in ‘sunshine is popular’ or ‘love is popular’ even as we, of course, need critics to remind us to use sunscreen, or philosophy and manners to temper the lust of our love.
Perloff, in her response to the Scarriet question of whether it might not be useful to focus not so much on poetry but poetry which appeals to strangers (Kirsch: “today only poets read poets”—imagine if only football players watched football) was pleasantly open to fame as a criterion; she had made O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” the focus of her talk: “Lunch Poems sells briskly,” Perloff said.
At the Chinese restaurant around the corner from the Grolier, I was between Nikolayev and Perloff, and after some preliminary talk of the Digital Humanities, an industry useful but philosophically overrated according to the nimble tongued Perloff, (exceedingly youthful for someone in her 80s) we got down to a discussion, powered by the questioning of Perloff by a healthily skeptical Nikolayev, which was right up Scarriet’s alley: Concrete Poetry. Perloff has the highest respect for it, but for Scarriet, it represents all that is overrated and crippling in the ‘white spaces’ fame of the mediocre modernist William Carlos Williams, who attempted to be a rhyming Romantic in his early work, and failed, and whose final worth was inflated by the influential New Critic’s textbook, Understanding Poetry.
What follows is an argument against Concrete Poetry formulated with the help of the discussion at the Hong Kong:
It is the critic’s duty not to confuse concrete existence with the art itself; if a performer has a bad cold and performs a piece of music differently as a result, this has nothing to do with the music as the composer has written it; if an orchestra plays the same piece of music, first printed in blue, and then printed in black ink, and performs the latter more vigorously, this has nothing to do with the music, nor does it alter music’s temporal nature. Poetry is a temporal art, as well—not partly temporal, not 99% temporal, but 100% temporal—duration manifests its beginning, middle, and end; poetry has no existence, no beginning, middle, and end without duration. White spaces on the page do not matter in terms of poetry’s temporal nature—despite the white spaces’ concrete existence. The white spaces do not belong to a poem in any significant or meaningful way, just as musical notes printed in blue or black ink do not contribute to music.
Temporality, it may be argued, springs from written (concrete) words in poetry and written (concrete) notes in music, so that in the very temporality exists the concrete: words and notes as they appear on a page—true. However, the manifestation of duration, in each case, is the result—color strikes our eye; painting has no temporal existence, even though it takes a certain time for the eye to traverse a painting; the painting qua painting does not exist as a temporal object, despite the fact that different viewers spend different amounts of time looking at various aspects of a painting. These “looking” differences equal a “concrete fact,” but this “fact” has nothing to do with the painting’s spatial existence—the duration of the viewer’s looking and the painting itself are indifferent to each other, just as the look of a poem and its temporal existence as an art form are separated, distinct and absolutely indifferent to each other.
A person—with a speech impediment—reads aloud a poem—and can do so in as much as it is a poem and not a picture. The same poem is then read aloud by Sir Laurence Olivier. This concrete experiment is absolutely null and void as it pertains to the poem as composed by the poet.
Further, let us assume there is a certain amount of white space, a very specific shape of white space, on the page. How is the white space “heard” in the person-with-the-speech-impediment’s reading? Or in Olivier’s reading? It is not. How could it be? How could a person with a speech impediment “misread” white space?
Or, take a poem which a critic dislikes. If one added, or subtracted, white space, and white space alone, to that poem, it would be absurd to say this act could make the critic now like the poem.
Or let us say the critic hears Olivier read the poem aloud. It is possible that if the performance is outstanding, the critic might enjoy the poem upon hearing it: but this change would be effected entirely by Olivier’s temporal performance.
It could not possibly have anything to do with Olivier “reading” the white spaces of the poem—which, in this experiment, of course, in both instances: the poem first disliked, and then liked because of Olivier’s reading, we keep the same.
At one point, over the spicy shrimp, Philip Nikolayev asked Marjorie Perloff to name the first Concrete Poet. An unfair question, perhaps? She couldn’t. The first Concrete Poet was a publisher, I imagine.
But we’ll discuss this another time.
That is, if Lana Turner ever gets up.