The Age of Technique by Bruce Bond
The history of poetry demonstrates with compelling regularity that great shifts in poetic discovery coincide with great shifts in technique. This fact is likewise greatly misleading. Coincidence is not causality, vision not technique, meaning not form, though we find ourselves in a climate where it is tempting to reduce the fundamental tensions of these to the dull tedium of sameness where, as both cultural symptom and epistemological assumption, “the medium is the message.” While poetry’s defining characteristic lies in its resistance to translation, its singularity of form, statements that would conflate form and meaning continue to assert the differences they long to dismantle. Moreover to conflate form and meaning is to dissipate one of the critical animating tensions in language and render poetic practice naïve about the complexity and difficulty of its medium. While new forms may lead to breakthroughs in vision, the history of poetry shows us just as plainly that a fetishistic faith in gadgetry can inspire rather redundant, soulless, and undeveloped work. As for the question of innovation, it is no easier to locate the source of poetic vision than it is to locate the source of creative will. The distinctive role of technical innovation continues to open up the complex question as to what that innovation would serve, if it need serve anything other than its own novelty, and to what extent the negative capability solicited by new technique puts a poem at enlarging and revelatory risk. To what extent, we might ask, does form open the space of meaning and meaning open the space of form.
Poetic theorists, from Aristotle to the present, have gone to great lengths to see in poetry’s vocation an enhanced intimacy between form and meaning. A rough sketch of this conversation suggests that poetry has moved toward a conception of this intimacy in increasingly close, relational terms such that the distinction between medium and mediated vanishes altogether. What was once an issue of decorum or appropriateness, of form’s metaphorical and tasteful relation to its subject, lends itself to examination, not simply in aesthetic terms, but in epistemological terms as well. Coleridge’s breakthrough in this regard suggests that form might have not simply a semiotic, symbolic relation, but also a causal, indexical relation to its inward source. Form does not simply mirror nature; form is caused by nature. It manifests nature’s meaningful dynamic. Form participates in the great unfolding of being and so bears testament to the real as inextricable from our relation to it. Organic form is, as he says, “innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form” (500). With form as the causally derivative index and sign of some other, his model expresses a problematic metaphysics. The inner originary force of form implies a formal dimension that is paradoxically hidden, thus invisible and in that sense not accurately understood as formal. The contradictory quality of this formulation points to the paradox of immanent distance with regards to form. It has both an inside and outside, and yet it becomes impossible to distinguish the two.
Similar justifications of individually determined form crop up throughout the nineteenth century, most famously in Emerson’s notion of a “meter-making argument” and Whitman’s justification of the explosive and emblematic inclusiveness of his free verse. America’s cultural soil provided a rich environment for the flourishing of free verse not simply as a metaphor for revolutionary individualism but as a force of nature as something distributed throughout. As both index and sign of the real, the open form of twentieth-century verse, especially projective verse, calls for a reframing of the relation between form and content, as reflected in Robert Creeley’s notion (“form is nothing but an extension of content”) and Denise Levertov’s reformulation (“form is nothing but a revelation of content”). These statements, while asserting both difference and continuity between form and content, move the discussion of their binaries closer toward the postmodern sensibility, wherein an increased resistance to metaphysical depth models of textual meaning suggests a conception of language as an ungrounded and self-referring field of signs wherein the real emerges as the fruition of textual play. Doubtless statements of radical relativism deconstruct themselves into nonsense, but there is a stubbornly fundamental question articulated by a twentieth-century resistance to essentialism—that is, how does one intuit meaning as different from form if its manifestation must be formal? On the other hand, what is the originary force whereby new form, however derivative of the old, bears new meaning into being? The fact that we only experience meaning via form does nothing to account for the origin of new meaning, as one form yields to another. The extremes of metaphysical essentialism and anti-metaphysical constructivism, as equally untenable, leave open the question of the genesis of meaning as far more problematic than the more pedagogical and politicized question of interpretive closure. It is easier to embrace the notion that there is no end to interpretation than to believe that there is no beginning. New meaning does indeed come into being. As William Blake recognized, originary force has the liberating potential to make us skeptical about empirical skepticism.
In recent decades, what we encounter in poetry’s strong advocacy of and identification with formal invention is an increasing sense of technical innovation as seminal to new vision. In his essay “Formal Experimentation and Poetic discovery,” H. L. Hix writes eloquently on the subject:
Great poems speak with a greater wisdom than the poets who wrote them possessed. The catalysis for such alchemy comes from form. (50)
The target of his critique will then be a pervasive, youthful naïveté that sees poetic form as a mere transparency, a rather passive medium as vehicle for self-expression. Hix makes a crucial pedagogical argument, particularly for apprentice poets whose sense of form, including rhetoric and diction, is artless, unimaginative, merely literal, and dull, secondary to a no less narrow impulse in terms of the complexity and generosity of vision. In such an apprenticeship sensibility, the impoverishment of form mirrors and encourages an impoverishment of vision. The apprentice poet’s first challenge is most obviously understood as formal, in that she must first explore a language more inventive and radiant than the flatly instrumental transparencies of daily discourse. Nevertheless the question, less voiced in contemporary poetics, remains as to whether the catalyst for poetic vision need be conceived specifically as formal, as if to isolate its agency. By this, I refer to form as broadly conceived in its binary with meaning. Thus form includes categories of style and diction for instance, or any of the elements of visual or auditory surface. Has the emphasis on technique and form bred another kind of mainstream in contemporary poetry that cuts across the embattled “schools” as we perceive them? Is the unipolar sense of form as seminal both positive and negative as an expression of a larger cultural valuation of technique or technology as taking on the mystique and mantle of the visionary?
Such questions need not dismiss the visionary potential of technology or technique, but rather they would examine the elevation of technique to the status of fetish or prime mover whereby meaningful discovery becomes eclipsed or curtailed by a preoccupation with gadgetry. Moreover, meaning’s impoverishment lies more specifically in the fetishization of formal novelty as a source of immediate authority. Admittedly, poetry’s practice thrives on the notion that new meaning requires a new “vocabulary,” understood as inclusive of the form, rhetoric, diction, and visual or auditory medium. A poem in this sense is a new term or set of terms for some newly manifest territory of feeling and idea. However, the validation of formal departure as the bearer of revolutionary force belies the nature of language as bound to the tension between form and meaning. To trust formal innovation with visionary force is as naïve as trusting authentic self-expressivity to legitimize exigent form. Neither the material nor the conceptual being of language gets too far into the realm of poetic vision if conceived as operating independently of the other. More specifically the dismantling of traditional syntax can often figure as necessary and expressive, and yet without some new “syntax” or syntagmatic accumulation of relational resonance, it lacks a powerfully progressive unfolding of meaning. Sequential relations among elements become so unspecific, they risk little at the level of insightful follow through and summons, a sense that one cares enough to dwell and deepen. To say the dismantling of syntax is the point does little to illuminate the work as thinking any harder. For this reason, there is an air of anti-intellectual (or non-intellectual) intellectuality about much conceptually uncommitted form. The foreground of formal novelty in its remote flirtation with and resistance to logos features as the salient poetic element, as opposed to an aesthetic of greater penetrating musicality and visual beauty that give emotional energy to the hunger for meaningful depth.
A climate that celebrates a formal novelty incapable of an unfolding process of new ideas might well have a distorted sense of its importance in transforming consciousness. A poem that does not commit to a process of new meaning becomes a static plane, either a system or a Rorschach or as some postmodern combination of the two, not a dynamic engagement. Poetry’s practice easily becomes secondary to some theory where conceptual energy might be ironically more concentrated. Another level of ambition might be to embody the philosophical impulse in poetry’s soulful complications, such that, if theory is important to the practice, that theory is made emotionally significant and generously developed via the work itself. To think poetically (which for Heidegger is to fulfill the truest definition of thinking) is doubtless difficult, and thus it could be that poets need different emphases at different stages of their development. Where the apprentice poet might need to trust the conspicuous elements of form as a muse, as the thing that leads the interpretive mind, a more experienced poet becomes increasingly interested in the formal impulse as synchronous with the speculative. More than that, the two impulses become paradoxically indistinguishable without dissolving the tension between form and meaning altogether. One thinks with the body, thinks with the image, thinks with the line or lack thereof, thinks with a bold formal experiment pressured by an equally new conceptual necessity, such that neither mind nor body takes the exclusive lead in the process. That said, a recalcitrant dualism haunts the process that would render dualism obsolete. However antiquated, Coleridge’s notion of inwardness as pressuring form into being has the advantage of binding formal innovation to some “inner other” in an effort to make form matter. His speculation need not imply a tidy temporal causality, but it does ever so slightly privilege the invisible inwardness as authenticating forms with a sense of necessity. There is a ghost in his model still, akin to Blake’s notion of infinity, the sense of “no form” as the divine force within form.
Romantic theories of form would thus make form more precisely responsive to the spontaneity of being, so that technique as a formal mode of opening being might play both an aesthetic and epistemological role. Similarly, Heidegger offers a compelling defense of technology (the forms of technique) as bound to visionary force, its power to “unconceal,” but so too he notes a critical difference between these forms and what they would honor and reveal:
When we consider the essence of technology, then we experience Enframing as a destining of revealing. In this way we are already sojourning within the open space of destining, a destining that in no way confines us to a stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology or, what comes to the same thing, to rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil. Quite to the contrary, when we once open ourselves to the essence of technology, we find ourselves unexpectedly taken into a freeing claim. (25, 26)
Blind adoration and rejection of technology therefore mirror one another as compulsive and regressive, ironically so given the liberating potential of technique. The antidote to technological obscuration is technological luminosity, which implies that, in opposition to a poetics that would isolate materiality, technology at its most liberating must see something or, in the case of language, it must say something. It must open the space of being. It must become something other than the object of its own gaze. True to the nature of its being, it must think.
The speculative vocation of poetry was obvious to poets of modernism, a period of intense formal innovation, so much so that it is hard for contemporaries not to feel a little nostalgic for an age so filled with the fruits of mission and experiment, with manifestoes and revolutionary excitement. The experimental poetics of Whitman and Mallarmé inspired the generation of Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Stein to challenge some of the foundational continuities with regard to formal practice in an effort to reflect a changing cultural and philosophical climate wherein traditional forms of authority were likewise under pressure. These moderns in particular conceived of their aesthetic shifts in epistemological terms, wherein truths were both modeled and created by poetic form. For Pound, the poetic image modeled and provoked intellectual and emotional complexity. For Eliot, the mythic method illuminated the elements of cultural fracture by way of greater inter-relational design. For the Williams of “Spring and All,” not only did particularity give authenticity to imaginative knowing, that knowing challenged more passive and traditional models of art as mimesis. For Stein, the “tender buttons” of poetic structure gave voice to a more nuanced sense of the being of common objects as embedded in their context, tone, and temporality. All voiced intellectual ambition and generosity in their poems (though Williams less so), while remaining keenly aware of the problem of “overthinking” a poem. As Eliot recognized, the lesser poet is either too conscious or not conscious enough.
While most would agree with Eliot, there remains vast disagreement as to just what constitutes thinking too much and precisely what the dangers are. Archibald MacLeash’s hyberbole that “A poem should not mean/ but be” exemplified a particularly American breed of sentimental anti-intellectualism, though a more specific resistance to “meaning” born of referential instrumentality has morphed into the more recently fashionable breed of anti-intellectual intellectualism. Charles Olson as a transitional figure between Pound and postmodernism both carries forward much that is modernist in its attempt to “escape” the narrowly personal, and yet he would raise the modernist stakes in terms of poetry as a spontaneous process versus a tightly structured mythology or system. As discussed earlier in this book,* Olson’s legacy has been appropriated in such a way that his implied metaphysical notion of poetry as a “stance toward the real” has lost out to his formal resistance to lyric subjectivity as self-conscious and thus self-reifying. In terms of a poem’s epistemological force, thinking too hard by way of hesitant selectivity pollutes the poem with phoniness, with self-serious artifice as a manifestation of ego. By way of both Olson and Derrida, a new generation of poets thus sees in the poetics of closure something both metaphorical and exemplary of logocentrism, which they see as thinking gone awry through its insistence upon consistency and control. In other words, logic’s resistance to contradiction and indeterminacy appears in alternative sensibilities to penetrate the whole of a poetic form. Logic and closure seem synonymous with logocentrism as opposed to being in tension with equally essential elements of experiment, spontaneity, irrationality, emotionality, and abandon. Since the word logocentric cannot be specific about degree, it can be applied rather freely, metaphorically, particularly in a political context that contributes to a self-serving theatricality and exaggeration of projection.
Since the ego functions in both the conscious and the unconscious, there is no guarantee of course that the self-conscious are any more egocentric than the spontaneous. In fact, a post-confessional mainstream of less thought-driven and more narcissistic and unbridled spontaneity attracts sharp criticism from poets of both the most avant-garde and traditional sensibilities. What this mainstream lacks is some semblance of Olson’s devotion to form. Form, whatever the sensibility, potentially figures as an alterity that poets must honor. In her interview with the Society for Cultural Exchange, Marjorie Perloff levels some apt criticism at a mainstream, both popular and academic, that disregards poetry’s formal integrity and complexity and thus has a rather marginalizing sense of poems as mere vehicles of moral sentiment. Conceived this way, poetry is ill equipped to compete with “the serious stuff” of other discourse. The truth of this prompts Perloff’s emphasis on poetry’s formal and specifically aural basis. In the course of her discussion, Perloff notes quite usefully that radio as a medium has yet to be explored by poets. Radio’s medium could figure as a rich untapped resource for poets, she states, and then she points to theory as the place where one might speculate about what it is to have a voice without a physical presence. What these insights highlight is a more generalized sense of the respective strengths of poetic theory and practice. The speculative dimension becomes aligned with prose, the formal with poetry. These alignments reflect a widely accepted bias, but especially so if one finds of particular interest a poetic tradition focused upon immanent surfaces.
Perloff’s highly original and influential book The Poetics of Indeterminacy maps out two traditions in the twentieth century, one derived from the more metaphysical poetics of Romantic and Symbolist poetry, the other beginning in Rimbaud and less rooted in the presumption of some metaphysical ground beyond architectural surface. The first tradition, as exemplified in the work of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens, encourages poetry that, she notes, is “polysemous,” rich in “multiple relational meanings” and suggestive in rendering “parts of an absent whole.” In Rimbaud, on the other hand, we find the “free-standing sign,” in other words an accent on immanence rather than transcendence. Granted, the contrast is a tad blurry, since the indeterminate tradition relishes the polysemous as well, but the key difference is in how the polysemous structures of the Romantic strain represent some interconnective interior to the poem, as if to suggest a metaphysical whole or ground. The phrase “free-standing sign” is likewise blurry. Derived from Barthes, it is a curious hyperbole that ironically would make a “free” and yet “standing” or stable place of the sign’s failure to connect absolutely. To be fair, Perloff does not mean to imply such an absolute. The confusion in Perloff’s contrast lies in the fact that “the free-standing sign” insofar as it is a “sign” connects, albeit multiply, and is therefore as “polysemous” as the Romantic symbol. Part of the appeal of the tradition of immanence is its openness, “free-standing” in the sense that new connections are interpretively constructed rather than intentionally reified. Perloff’s specific readings of texts, however, characteristically become sketchy and inconsequential as they labor to make clear what it is of interest in the indeterminate tradition.
Take for example Perloff’s essay on the immanent poetics of language poetry, where she guides us into Susan Howe’s “Secret History of the Dividing Line.” Here is a short quote form Howe’s poem:
mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic a land a
tract indicate position 2 record bunting interval
free also event starting the slightly position o
O about both of don’t something INDICATION Americ
The beginning of Perloff’s analysis demonstrates terrific resourcefulness then in opening up the field of the poem’s possible reference:
Here mark refers first of all to the surveyor’s (William Byrd’s) mark made in delineating a boundary between “tract[s]” of forest land. But the mark is also a trace, a sign that points us to specific things that have happened: one thinks of Blake’s “London,” with its lines, “And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The poem’s opening “Mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic” gives the word “mark” a number of paragrammatic possibilities.
The analysis sounds promising indeed. Unfortunately, Perloff goes on to sound out a few more possible referents and then without conclusion moves on to another poet. The ostensible virtue of the poem thus lies in the signs as “free-standing” that do not commit. They gesture freely, provisionally, and in like fashion the critical reading wanders a bit in the field without little pressure of necessity coalescent around the pleasure and daring of some point of view. The subversion of predication itself emerges as thematic in the poem, which is provocative, though it would take some semblance of a predication to explore more fully why or why we should care. The relatively indeterminate nature of meaning might find validation if the meanings constructed (by reader, writer, or both) were profound, but what Perloff offers us is bland and episodic, wide with possibilities that do not follow through with much development or substance. This is not to say that form is isolated absolutely from meaning. This is language after all. However, form emerges as the salient and authoritative feature relative to meanings that are relatively indeterminate and, at least as rendered by Perloff, rather dull. If such a poem occasions wisdom, it does so as if without authorial intention. The poem does indeed have virtues, though they align themselves far more with the materiality and diffusely thematic and powerfully emotive evocations of visual art than they do with the conceptual development of philosophy.
Doubtless there is a wonderfully mercurial associative consciousness on display to the poem’s surface. The text opens itself up to so much complex play that it raises the question as to how much meaning is given by the reader and how much made by the author. Although familiar, this figures as an intriguing starting point. If we wish to argue that the poem is intellectual, it emerges as such via some ironically metaphysical effort to discern the presence of ideation as working beneath the surface fragmentation. One could say the same of much conceptually freighted visual art. As emblematic of the general philosophical notions that Perloff brings to bear, the poetry is rendered as a material grid of the possible, reiterative in its general conception that calls to our attention the ever presence of dividing lines as pervading and destabilizing the personal and historical—that is, no effort has been made by Perloff to discern something in the poem’s progressive particulars of insight that risks an unfolding thoughtfulness and exposure. Process is less modeled in the poem than made possible. What Perloff highlights as convincing is a field of themes that connect, lightly, to those of her theoretical context.
With regard to that context, Perloff has indeed done an ambitious thing via her delineation of twentieth-century poetry into two competing traditions, and as with all broad sketches of literary history, it is far easier to pick at her model and find where it breaks down than it is to risk such a synthetic approximation. The model has proved useful to many subsequent critics, such as Cole Swenson, who, in the introduction to her and David St. John’s anthology American Hybrid, provides historical context for a new crossbreed of poetic traditions. In invoking the Romantic tradition, she refers to their “belief in the stability and sovereignty of the individual”—an understandable and familiar shorthand that in truth does not register the destabilizing, transpersonal force of the Romantic “inner other” (as Coleridge’s vast “intellectual breeze,” both inner and outer), not to mention the often intimidating alterities of the natural world. Cole’s subsequent implication is that a Romantic sensibility expresses itself in traditional lyricism of the twentieth century, whereas an alternative tradition reflects more interest in the material text, “innovations in form,” and a dismantling of the individual’s claim to authority:
This split is more than a stylistic one; it marks two concepts of meaning: one as transcendent, the other as immanent. Thus, the twentieth-century American poetry offers both a model of the poem as a vehicle for conveying thoughts, images, and ideas initiated elsewhere—a model that recognizes language as an accurate roadmap or system of referring to situations and things in the real world—and a model of the poem as an event on the page, in which language, while inevitably participating in a referential economy, is emphasized as a site of meaning in its own right, and poetry is recognized as uniquely capable of displaying that. (xviii)
Given these terms, the latter, more progressive tradition sounds far more nuanced, whereas the former contains the words “accurate roadmap or system,” which suggests an unproblematized view of how referentiality works and does not work. One might ask, so in which tradition do we put Stevens, the quintessential “metaphysician in the dark”? Do we, as Perloff does, situate him (with all his skepticism and iambic pentameter) within a Romantic tradition of, as described here, the stability and sovereignty of the individual? Moreover, where are the texts out there that describe language as an “accurate roadmap,” which sounds simplistic, as if to align the “transcendent” tradition once again with that of “self-essentialism” and “self-expression?” The tradition of transcendence appears one dimensional in the above description, while that of immanence tempers its identity with some sense of referentiality and thus the invocation of the invisible. Where do we put the huge tradition of American surrealism with its metaphysical tensions so influenced, not only by depth psychology, but also by notions such as Lorca’s duende, decidedly destabilizing, transpersonal, and irreducible to merely material and formal immanence?
It is tough to know what “meaning as immanent” means as void of the metaphysical tension that makes meaning, however formal, into something other than form. Postmodern examples in so far as they shed the ghost of transcendence likewise shed their pressure of necessity with regard to meaning. Moreover, there is something dodgy and trendy in the phrase “participating in a referential economy,” with the word “economy” as jargon that conjures contemporary theoretical discourse about meaning as a production of power. To say language “participates in an economy” deftly avoids commitment with regard to the veracity, however partial, of language as referential. Roadmaps are models of the real with clear one-to-one relationships that avoid equivocation, but referentiality is a larger, more complex phenomenon that allows for imperfection, suggestion, and intimation with regard to the pressure of reality. Without such pressure, no claim, including Swenson’s, can be true. So we might ask, is language referential in relation the real, or do we simply participate in an economy that operates as if it were? According to Swenson, the French tradition will assert no more than the fact that language has a referential currency minted by social transaction. While this is obviously true, Swenson’s rhetorical strategy brackets off the messiness of a real world beyond the pale of the language and focuses instead on a social context credited without qualification with the production of a sense of reality.
Equally shaky is Swenson’s notion that a non-Romantic tradition would by contrast emphasize language as “a site of meaning in its own right.” The phrase “in its own right” is blurry and untenable with regard to the phenomenon of meaning in language. Yes, poetry true to its vocation binds meaning inextricably to form and thus resists paraphrase, but in so far as there are such phenomena as language and meaning, these things gesture beyond their own “site.” They are inherently relational and, more specifically, referential, imperfectly so, in ways that affirm more than simply some social consensus and self-referring economy. Language must have an outside, which, granted, makes it problematic. If we accept referential meaning as merely a production of social exchange with no so-called real other than the one we provisionally create, then language would have to cease to function as a language. Moreover our descriptions of language must be equally relativized and therefore neither true nor false. The banished ghost of the signified outside of language drains poetry of its consequence and necessity, and meaning gets conceived rather simplistically as identical with form, which it cannot be. The non-Romantic tradition, as conceived by Swenson, espouses an anti-metaphysical skepticism, while remaining unable to avoid language that is in some way metaphysical—words such as “self” that are neither cleansed of faith nor “an accurate roadmap” of the real.
Once again, it is easier to attack these kinds of sketches of literary history than to formulate and risk their useful approximations, but one might well wonder if the concept of meaning conceived as either transcendent or immanent is very interesting. The conception of meaning as mere transcendence would of course be blind to form, its pressures, its agency, its challenging alterity. The conception of meaning as mere immanence would be blind to the metaphysical tension and hunger that engenders new meaning. The latter blindness explains a fetishization of formal novelty as in itself meaningful. At this point in history, it might well be more enriching to conceive of meaning as vigorously both immanent and transcendent, that it has always been both, and that we find ourselves, via the hybridizations in current intellectual and poetic culture, in a position to better appreciate the instability, tension, summons, necessity, and lovely difficulty all implicit in meaning as both.
Of course there are many factions and gradations of sensibility in the poetry world today. The caricature of our time with its two dominant factions has thus far struggled to identify and probe “in depth” the major works that fit appropriately into those traditions. That said, the sensibilities that align themselves with traditional or experimental form have one thing in common: they both self-identify via form. This, as mentioned earlier, figures as a healthy antidote to the more naïve notions blind to form, but it says little of substance about a poem’s visionary vocation, let alone its duende, its soulful, revelatory, imaginative color and vitality. The cold, unmusical reiterations of much avant-garde work and the stilted, unambitious literality of much traditional formal work suggest that, no matter what the sensibility, the reliance on form conceived as independent or conflated with meaning trivializes its felt, imaginative understanding. At the same time, critical correctives that might value something akin to duende, something less narrowly formal, something more intuitively metaphysical such as “soulfulness” or “saturation in unconscious energy,” might seem too vague. “Soulfulness” in particular has the odd resonance of the “personal transpersonal” and so might seem to essentialize the unknown as a personal possession. These more metaphysical notions, like that of “authenticity,” are relative, never absolute, and so affirm more than they can fully represent. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine poetry of powerful evocation without some ghost of authenticity, soulfulness, and the energy of unfathomable depth.
While it was once popular to attack poetry workshops and MFA programs for their culture of consensus and uniformity, the current diversity reflected in poetry pedagogy makes questionable the notion of their homogenous mediocrity. It was once trendy to see the professionalization of poetry as some tedious machine churning out the “workshop poem,” but that complaint has figured as a new mainstream. Perhaps the more challenging impact now of the professionalizing of poetry practice is twofold: proliferation and specialization. The proliferation of poets is exciting, though for young poets in particular, it provokes anxiety. For editors, it floods their desks with manuscripts. The effect is that it is difficult for a poem, especially from a young unknown poet, to stand out upon first encounter, and a young poet’s anxiety might thus focus on the elements of first impression (on the more conspicuous elements of form as inclusive of style, diction, and voice) and trust less in deep structure (embedded in form and yet “interior,” less readily visible). Truth is, most young poets need to focus on style and voice in order to appreciate how they cannot be dissociated from vision, but the process of professionalization has little time to model the breadth of curiosity or nurture the development of creative speculation a poet needs to move beyond the “merely acceptable.” Thus the second challenge for the student poet is to transcend the possible limits of a concentration on poetry, especially the poetry of one’s own time. Poets might be better served to be voracious generalists. Their work, in its visionary potential, might grow large in relation to their hunger to know things in the margins of poetry’s current conversation. In a changing world, poetry will always have new things to say, just as much as theory does or science or political discourse or the inspired, associative interjection of a child. In its felt relation to whatever it is that comes to matter, poetry’s scope of reference, revelation, and reimagined mystery is enormous.
If it is the vocation of the poet to write toward one’s other self, perhaps the other self for many in our time has less to do with what is readily apparent in form than in visionary potential as articulated in the tension between form and meaning. The isolation of formal authority, traditional or experimental, might figure as crutch, or, in Heidegger’s words, a “stultified compulsion,” and this crutch or compulsion reflects a larger, cultural preoccupation with technological mediation. Such mediation, while it undeniably opens up the space of poetry, is only as powerful as what it chooses to mediate. The medium cannot be the message, not if the medium has a message. A computer may be one wonderful eyeball, but it cannot be a point of view. It is doubtless the case that, for many careful editors, the poem that stands out is the poem of magnanimous curiosity, the kind of poem that takes the top of your head off precisely because of what it reveals and conceals, how it enlarges heart and mind in a way that is genuinely transformative. Moreover such curiosity is at the heart of poetry’s fundamental summons in its hunger for being. This is not to dismiss mystery, but rather to make a distinction between frivolous obscurity and mysteries that have the pressure and pleasure of necessity in them. Such mysteries do not so much “model” the real as honor it as critical to that necessity.
To this end, aspiring poets might better concentrate on the spontaneously unfolding task of development of speculative energy rather than the architectural stasis of grand, predetermined, vision. The phrase “grand vision” lures a breed of ambitious ego-distortion and loss of adaptability and focus. Poetry’s distinctive way of knowing need not work out the kinks of contradiction, and its alliance with myth suggests a negotiation of contradiction via imaginative constructs full of humor, wonder, and lovely difficulty without sacrificing the tension that resonates with emotional truth. “Great poems speak with a greater wisdom than the poets who wrote them possessed,” writes Hix. The reason for this is not simply because of technical breakthrough. The novel character of form’s techniques may or may not be critical. The revelatory surprise and surpassing of intention derives from the capacity for form to open the space of meaning and meaning to open the space of form. It stems from the elusive agency of vision that cannot locate itself neatly in the past or present, the self or the other, the personal or the impersonal, the heart or the mind, the poem’s materiality or its mercurial spirit. As both immanent and transcendent, the language of poetry hungers for presence and absence as making their equal claim on us. In this way, poems become resilient, concentrated, physically significant, radiant with the intimation of being that, ruthlessly, mercifully, cannot fully bring itself to language, nor, as seminal to how and why we write, tear itself away.
* Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press)
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
Hix, H. L. As Easy As Lying: Essays on Poetry. Silver Spring, MD: Etruscan, 2002.
Howe, Susan. Secret History of the Dividing Line. New York: Telephone, 1978.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject.” Critical Inquiry 23 (1999): 405–434.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Marjorie Perloff 3.” Youtube. 2009. Interview with the Society for Critical Exchange. January 30, 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d37kHq1TQrk>
Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Swenson, Cole. “Introduction.” In American Hybrid. Cole Swenson and David St. John, eds. New York: Norton, 2009.