COLE SWENSEN’S LIPS ARE MOVING (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND A THING SHE SAYS)

Cole Swensen Poetry Trading Card

Cole Swensen: learning sans philosophy

Our poetry blog rival John Gallaher has duly noted poet Cole Swensen’s new book of essays from U. Michigan Press, Noise That Stays Noise.

We follow in Gallaher’s footsteps.

Gallaher, on his blog, dutifully copies the following from Swensen’s title essay with tacit praise, but we—in the Scarriet spirit, running, as usual, against the po-biz grain—bring to the table some analysis of Ms. Swenson’s assumed wisdom.  Here is the Swensen Gallaher quoted:

Both novelty and redundancy have a place in our interpretation of the world around us. Complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s “man without memory,” for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening; complete redundancy, on the other hand, would amount to the heat death of complete homogeneity.

The degree of nonunderstanding in a given piece changes from reader to reader and is often slight; the novel feeling it occasions is part of the pleasure of reading poetry and is the source of the simultaneous suspension and surprise that seems to bypass the cognitive faculties.

This process, which, borrowing a term from the biological sciences, I’m going to refer to as self-organization from noise, is particularly important in considering much recent American poetry, which often contains a lot of what many would consider noise.

Such an approach demands that we consider a literary text solely as an act of communication, as a completely quantifiable message passing through a channel from a sender to a receiver. Though this may strike some as cold, on the contrary, I think it is just such an approach that can elucidate the ways in which literature differs from mechanistic models of communication and can, unlike them, augment the quantifiable with irreducible qualities of human sensation and emotion.

Noise is most simply defined as any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quantity of quality of transmitted information.

[I]n a text, various idiosyncrasies from typographical errors to intentional ambiguities can also be considered noise if they too alter (or augment) the imparted information.

Information, in turn, can be defined in terms of the resolution of uncertainty.

[I]n literature . . . noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

Literary noise . . . is often not a degradation of the message; on the contrary, such noise is often intentional and aimed at preventing the suppression of imagination that complete certainty can cause. . . . This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

The way in which poets define noise strongly influences style . . . .

[T]he reader is crucial here . . .

–from Noise That Stays Noise by Cole Swensen

Swensen’s initial division between novelty and redundancy has philosophical force, but Swensen’s thinking quickly slides into that predictable modernist ploy: speaking in code to the initiated.  Noise is a metaphor for the horrible sort of poetry which the public hates; rather than defend this horrible sort of poetry directly, Swensen chooses to defend noise as  horrible poetry’s stand-in.  If we can just say enough interesting things about noise, Swensen thinks, we can satisfy ourselves that horrible poetry has a purpose.  This is exactly what Swensen is doing, and Gallaher knows it.  Well, this is how intellectuals deceive one other.

You read a poem. You can’t understand it.  You wonder why such things are given a pass.  Then you read,

noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

And then you nod, and go, I seeAs a reader, I have a responsibility to allow this noise to show me possibilities.

Swensen does understand that she better define what she means by noise, and so we get this:

This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

So time-honored strategies such as “juxtaposition” and “unusual syntax” and “neologism,” things which one might associate with the 16th century author, Shakespeare, are what she really means by “noise.”  In that case, “noise” might as well be anything, and it quickly becomes apparent that the term, “noise,” is merely code for the approval of play-pen modernism/post-modernism.

Swensen is practicing shoddy, incoherent criticism and it’s aimed precisely at folks like Gallaher, who are pre-determined not to question it.

As for Swensen’s redundancy/novelty construction, it is interesting how she says “complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s ‘man without memory,’ for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening,” and then says of “nonunderstanding,” that the “novel feeling it occasions…is part of the pleasure of reading poetry.”  Redundancy, for Swenson, is the “heat death of complete homogeneity.”  But how do we go from “incomprehensible and frightening” to “pleasure?”  Is it because “reading poetry” is such a trivial act?  Or is she unwilling to follow through on her own declarations? Is Swenson unwilling to compare the nature of the mind, or the nature of reality, to poetry?

Is this just a sophistical tease?  I am going out on a limb here, and I’ll say yes, it is.  Swensen is practicing swine-like rhetoric.

Without really bothering to discuss the subject, “nonunderstanding” takes on magical powers for Swensen.

Swensen abandons the redundancy/novelty dichotomy at once.  Nothing further needs to be said about the “redundancy” side of the scale.  She’d rather discuss the “pleasures” and “surprises” of “noise.”

But isn’t redundancy largely how we experience reality, whether it’s the movement of the sun and planets in the universe, or all those repetitions that make the world comprehensible, and the sciences, the languages, and the arts, possible?   Is Swensen interested in how things work, or is she only looking to discourse on things she likes?

We might mention Shakespeare’s Sonnet #23 for an interesting treatise on noise, or Millay’s Sonnet, “If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way” (the noise of the subway); and clarity would have no small part in the analysis of these works.  Certainly Swensen’s sophistry is not necessary to make the subject of ‘noise’ lively.

No wonder the creative mind’s ability to make great works of art has been eclipsed by academic dullness.  Swensen’s faint-hearted plays at rhetoric are now the rule.

A tip to Swensen: Learn from your (superior) ancestors, Plato of The Phaedrus, Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Though it drive you mad, strive to find the truth.

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5 Comments

  1. November 3, 2011 at 2:51 am

    Things

    Deep and amply worried we
    about so many things,
    health and money, love and work,
    future and potential things;
    dull, mundane and earthly things;
    the dead-pledge and the will,
    inheritance and insurance,
    the possibility of even more bad things,
    the requisite and customary things,
    the things now soon to come.

    Sometimes my troubles overwhelm me,
    lead me to despair and darker things,
    so I sit out here tonight and worry
    about all these awful, worldly things.

    Then I happened to look up and see the moon,
    full adrift on a high slow breeze as if
    a-sail on pewter clouds across a silver sea.
    I feel the soft breeze on my face.
    I notice how all the white fences glow
    and the trees are casting shadows.

    All of a sudden in this clean new light
    nothing seems all that important
    and no thing is as important as nothing else.

    Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Writing at Night

    I had planned to write about that owl tonight.
    I heard him calling from the wood, but now
    I’m thinking that I should write my will.
    I’ve put it off as long as I could.
    I should list all my assets and debts,
    my most treasured and valuable goods,
    pay the balance on lost bets
    for those I leave behind.

    Maybe I could just write a letter
    to everyone I’ve wronged, that I’ve maligned,
    make this page an apology for all
    the things I’ve screwed up in my life,
    all the things I sought but could never find.
    Or, at least, leave a thank you note
    for having had it.

    Copyright 2009 – Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  2. noochinator said,

    June 6, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Poetry Trading Cards!!!

    http://www.fact-simile.com/tradingcard.html

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 6, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      Stats?

      Gonna buy a pack, Nooch?

      • noochinator said,

        June 6, 2015 at 6:53 pm

        Yes, I wonder if there is any info on the back of the cards. I’m tempted to spend $50 for the five year run (2009-2014), although buying poetry trading cards, like going on cruises, may be G-d’s way of saying one has too much money.

        BTW, Mr. Silliman is in the 2010 batch:

        http://www.fact-simile.com/tradingcard2010.html

        • thomasbrady said,

          June 6, 2015 at 9:15 pm

          Hilarious. Only Anne Waldman features both a head shot and a ‘full-length reading a poem’ photo. They all need that.

          They should show the back of the cards. If they’re blank, I would ask for my money back.


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