Thursday, December 10, 2009

Poetry is perplexing and annoying: Infidel Poetics & Anguish Languish

I've been mulling over The Sound of Poetry /The Poetry of Sound, ed. by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, convincing myself that it's going to be a big-deal book, but couldn't help thinking how much more I enjoyed Charles Bernstein's Close Listening - an indispensable classic (though not the same kinda book exactly); so I turned listlessly instead to Infidel Poetics by Daniel Tiffany... and now, oboy, I'm excited!

I guess it's a book for poetry nerds like me, but even though it's an "academic" book, it's one that's lucid, timely, groundbreaking, and original.  And here I should add that the U. of C. Press is to be commended for publishing academic books like this in attractive and affordable paperback books (hello, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press).

Anyway, the book looks deeply and unpredictably at how the obscurity of poetry is connected with social relationships and community.  I'm having a ball reading it.  Here's a sample:

"Obscurity in poetry is a matter disclosed upon reception - what G.W. Leibniz calls 'perception' - not something intrinsic to particular properties of the verbal artifact.  All verbal phenomena are simultaneously obscure and transparent, taking into account the range of possible responses - or the variability within a single response.  Obscurity, from this perspective, is native to the ontology of poetry.  More specifically, despite a recent 'bubble' in the accreditation of poetry, the art of poetry persists today - as perhaps it always has - in cultural obscurity.  Poetry, it's true, sustains a visible subculture, yet common resistance to poetry cannot be isolated from poetry's perceived resistance to communication.  Most readers, including many literate and scholarly readers, find poetry to be perplexing and annoying.  Indeed, even ordinary language in a poem strikes many readers as confusing, at once alienated and alienating.  By contrast, a small coterie of readers (mostly poets and students of poetry) is so thoroughly habituated to lyric obscurity that all poetry - from this perspective - appears to be immune to the conditions of obscurity.  Another segment of readers (and poets) advances a poetics of transparency, forgetting that even the most accessible poetry will be considered obscure by many readers.

"Given the fact of lyric obscurity - perhaps the only fact a poem yields to its readers - one wonders what sort of bond, if any, a poem establishes with its readers, with the sensory realm evoked by its words, or with the society in which it appears (if indeed it makes an appearance).  More to the point, after a century of programmatic obscurity, a great deal of serious poetry appears to have abandoned the task of communication, the will to directly influence common, public discourse and evolving conceptions of community.  Must we therefore presume that the obscurity of poetry, in comparison with other genres and media, bars it from overt social engagement and, even more radically, that no viable model of relational being can be deduced from the conditions of lyric obscurity?"

I love coming across phrases like "the pleasure of cruising the unknown in a text" and thoughts like this one: "in popular music today, there is a flourishing market in poetic obscurity."  (I'm reminded of Mick Jagger's recalling how he learned from Fats Domino records the value of literally obscuring lyrics in rock and roll songs!)  Tiffany quotes, as above, Leibniz, which is always great fun; and digs up such fascinatingly "quire whids" (literally "queer words") as these, ca. 1536:

Enow, enow.  With bousy cove maund nase,
   Tour the patrico in the darkman case,
Docked the dell for a copper make:
   His watch shall feng a prounce's nab-cheat.
Cyarum, by Solomon, thou shalt peck my jere
   In thy gan; for my watch it is ance gear;
Or the ben bouse my watch hath a wyn.

Put that in your coterie and smoke it out!

Or - via the Language Log - check out Howard L. Chace's Anguish Languish, whose introduction includes these perplexing words:

A visiting professor of Anguish, Dr. ____________, [This isn't his real name, nor is it intended to be the name of any other Anguish Languish professor, living or dead.] who, while learning to understand spoken English, was continually bewildered and embarrassed by the similarity of such expressions as boys and girls and poisoned gulls, used to exclaim: 

"Gracious! What a lot of words sound like each other! If it wasn't (sic) for the different situations in which we hear 'em, we'd have a terrible time saying which was which." 

Of course, these may not have been the professor's exact words, because he often did his exclaiming in Anguish rather than in English. In that case he would say: 

"Crashes! Water larders warts sunned lack itch udder! Egervescent further delerent saturations an witch way harem, wade hei[er haliver tam sang witch worse witch."

In no time you'll be singing:

O gummier hum warder buffer-lore rum
Enter dare enter envelopes ply,
Ware soiled'em assured adage cur-itching ward
An disguise earn it clotty oil die.

Harm, hormone derange,
Warder dare enter envelopes ply,
Ware soiled'em assured adage cur-itching ward
An disguise earn it clotty oil die.


Henry Gould said...

Thanks for noting this, Don. I'm going down to B Level to look for Infidel Poetics right now.

The quote made me think of Paul Fry's book, "Defense of Poetry". Not the same argument, but sort of a parallel track.

TC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Share said...

Hi, Tom -

You deleted your comment; I wish you hadn't. But I fixed "indispensable" and "bars it" - thanks for pointing out my typos. I won't change the quotation marks; your style sheet may vary from mine. (Did you spell "graaph" right?)

Say more, please, about "lying" and "evasion," and give examples of what you consider to be "good" and "bad" poetry.

I don't see that anything Tiffany says here indicates that he feels that the "brutal facts of American life" are amusing or fun, and I certainly don't.

I honestly do appreciate your comment, and hope you'll consider saying more here.

John Gallaher said...

"even the most accessible poetry will be considered obscure by many readers"

This is just what I've come across from MOST people for years. No matter what I show them they continue to say its obscure. Even really, really NOT obscrure things by Mary Oliver, say.

On the other hand, even many academics will read Pynchon, say, with pleasure, and then get all crazy uncomfortable with something as mild as Jorie Graham or Charles Wright.

TC said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for fixing those typos. Once you'd done that I saw no reason to leave the comment up.

Trade you one for one on our next round: in my deleted comment I mistyped "graph". Too many a's. Whacky keyboard. (Sentence fragment.) But I've found another typo in your post: "cannot be isolated form..." (I expect you meant "from", did you not?)

As to the quote marks issue, (are we having fun yet?): the only rule I have ever heard of is this:
For a quotation longer than one paragraph that is not set off from the text in a block, use quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph and at the end of the final paragraph.

I don't mean to be stubborn about this, but the lack of quotes at the top of the second quoted graph made me stop at the end in puzzlement, finding closing quotes. Who was saying what? wondered I into the bleak dyspepsia of the rainy night.

Perhaps this is why God invented sleep. I hope to get in good with her one of these nights, and share these pleasures.

Hang on to your sense of humour. Laughing at oneself can be refreshing, I find. Like cold showers. During my brief military career I enjoyed them, I think.

By the way, as to that first comment, it was probably redundant. To say that one doesn't think the better known contemporary poetry usefully addresses the real issues of economic inequity that exist currently in our frenetically facebooked twittering consumer-god society is not exactly breaking news. To say that most of that poetry is written from the privileged sanctuary of academic sinecures and thus views the life of the streets, if at all, from what is essentially an ivory tower position -- requiring continuous lying and evasion in order to avoid the brutal facts of American life as it is occurring right now in large cities like the one where I live -- that too seems to me so obvious as not really to need a lot of explaining.

I don't find it pleasant or reassuring in any way to attempt to write about such matters, but unfortunately
I don't see that there's any choice.

Take care, see you later. Tom

Don Share said...

Thank you yet again. And I agree with you. I've written against squandermania, as I call it, myself. I don't know what kind of real answers poetry can wield in this climate; John Kinsella's proposed activist poetics, which he wrote about in Poetry, is taking a beating on the Harriet blog. I hope anybody who hasn't already will read Tom Clark's work on his own blog as well as on Vanitas.

I blog from an ancient computer onto the keyboard of which I spilled something that messed up the keys, which now stick or fail. That's no excuse for the typos - excuses do not excuse - but that's my (lame) explanation. I refuse to add it to the poisoned junk heaps of the planet.

TC said...


Loud and clear, thanks.

Me too with the sticky keyboard. The "t" practically has to be hit with a hammer. Several other letters run amok on the slightest touch and reproduce themselves in floods. Before being arrested.

My helpful partner suggests that, on the subject we have been discussing (not the punctuation clown show, the other), you might also be interested in this.

Ok, thanks again. T

PS. Can it really be true you are the editor of the august journal Poetry? In February of 1967 I took the El down to the magazine office, sat down in a large comfortable chair and was told by Henry Rago the whole interesting saga of his family: Cicero undertakers. Henry then offered me the editorship of the magazine. I declined. (Remember, this was "the Sixties." More fun -- speaking of the streets -- to be had elsewhere, I thought. At the time anyway. A time of total folly.)

Don Share said...


Well, my problem is the "r" key, which I have to pound repeatedly; when I do, my fingers bounce on all the wrong adjacent keys! I've tried everything to fix it, but just bang away. That along with aging eyes, well...

Re Poetry mag, well, I'm Senior Editor; Chris Wiman's Editor. You may know our Steve Young, from offline stuff back when we were trying to lend a hand... Anyway, Rago is a great hero of mine! I wonder what the magazine would have been like if you'd taken the road not traveled!

I'm pleased and dare I say honored to be in touch with you here.

Yrs., - Don

Kent Johnson said...

The typo anxiety expressed by Don and Tom Clark here bemuses me, but anyway, watch for the new book from Clark, just rolling off the presses-- a co-production of Skanky Possum and Effing Presses.

And at risk of mildly embarrassing him, which I no doubt am, send Dale Smith a note of deserved congratulations. He just received his Ph.D. from U of Texas in Rhetoric and Poetics, and those ain't easy to come by. Especially when the annual temperature in Austin these days averages around 93 degrees.

Don Share said...

Well, Kent, he's right in an essential sense. It's a moral thing; and moreover, people in my line are supposed to be more vigilant.

Congrats to Dale on that pfud; and to Tom, on the new book.

Henry Gould said...

Spending a lot of time with Edwin Honig I noticed how his eagle eye for typos, grammatical errors etc. seemed to connect with the moral stringency of some of his poems... it's what writers do for civilization, maybe...

wonder how this connects with the argument that obscurity is innate to poetry - is social justice innately obscure too? Or just hard to write well about...

TC said...

"No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level." -- T. Adorno, "Memento"

I am grateful for Don's conscientious concern for the small details of writing; these ought to be of concern to all writers. And I find Kent's comment ("The typo anxiety expressed by Don and Tom Clark here bemuses me") mildly amusing.

Bemused means to find something confusing or puzzling.

To say one is confused by the idea that someone would want to get small details like spelling and punctuation right seems disingenuous; no one who has ever been to school could possibly be confused by this.

Thanks to Henry for introducing the useful example of that excellent poet, translator and teacher Edwin Honig. I was lucky to be able to observe first-hand some aspects of Edwin's work habits in the early 1980s when we shared the same publisher (Turkey Press). His 1983 book Gifts of Light was then in production. It was my impression that Edwin oversaw everything with close attention and was certainly a stickler about the details. His care in this area was certainly respected and appreciated by the publisher, Harry Reese. The result was wonderful collaborative work.

Henry G: "his eagle eye for typos, grammatical errors etc. seemed to connect with the moral stringency of some of his poems... it's what writers do for civilization, maybe..."

Amen to that. Also Henry should be saluted for the perhaps unreasonable hopefulness in his suggestion that "civilization" still exists.

O wonder!...
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

Kent Johnson said...

Excuse the extended quotation, here. Tom C. wrote:

>And I find Kent's comment ("The typo anxiety expressed by Don and Tom Clark here bemuses me") mildly amusing...Bemused means to find something confusing or puzzling...To say one is confused by the idea that someone would want to get small details like spelling and punctuation right seems disingenuous; no one who has ever been to school could possibly be confused by this.

Yes, I did find the anxiety "bemusing"! I was confused as to why so much earnest discussion was being expended on typos in blog comment boxes, of all places, where many of us don't spend a lot of time proofreading our TEXTS. Maybe we should, I don't know. But I was thinking you fellows were probably joking around about the topic.

But now I'm positively amused: Tom quotes Adorno! Don states the issue is an ethical one!

Poor David Shapiro!


TC said...


There was an original comment in which I pointed out some fidgets and doohickeys in the text of Don's post. He fixed 'em so I deleted the comment. There ensued some friendly japes regarding the punctilios of comments. What "we" should do, I don't know. To me the taking of care with writing in any text or context should be equal and constant. Designated places for being sloppy I have no use for. I don't see this as a matter of neurosis ("anxiety") nor of ethics so much as of avoiding coming off as an idiot, if only to oneself.

Don Share said...

Diligence in public matters is no joke.

As for David, his published work is free of the typos we find endearing in his personal communications. Draw whatever conclusions you like from that.

Henry Gould said...

Apropos, an interesting review of new edition of Fowler classic on English usage, back page of today's NYTBR. Talks about the whole spectrum of writerly mishaps... but I'd be curious to hear from others - seems to me the disucssion of the etymology of "meticulous" is quite mixed up. It doesn't matter that in Old French "met-" meant "fearful". Or rather it does, but the author of the review mishandlesd it, because he misinterprets the relevant (old) meaning of "fearful" itself! It's not fearful as in pusillanimous; it's fearful as in "the fear of God". As in "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom".

Kent Johnson said...

Tom and Don,

No, that's fine, really. I'm more delighted than anything else that Tom Clark and Don Share are engaging at Squandermania.

Just a thought on the subject, though:

Comment boxes enable rapid, informal, multidirectional exchange, and that has been a very good thing, many people would agree. It's opened up the poetry field quite a bit and unsettled some things in unsuspected and productive ways.

There are drawbacks to the medium, obviously, and plenty of us have had our embarrassing moments in the flow and flux of it. But I fear many people will be less open, creative, and intuitive with their reactions if a background sense develops that typos, punctuation, and grammar miscues are under general surveillance. I'm certainly aware form and content in prose are inseparable, but too much checking by readers for surface correctness, particularly in a medium where spontaneity, informality, even idiosyncracy are part of the context, might well have a dampening effect. And too much "second thought" given by writers to their comments, in turn, might often remove the spirit from the impulse. (Like right now: Because of the topic, I'm checking for typos and things, worrying over phrasing more than I normally do, changing this and that, and it strikes me that this comment now sounds completely stilted!)

And I've probably still got errors in here. So I say proofreading for correctness in comment boxes is fine, so long as it's done within and for personal expression, and not within and against some kind of larger self-consciousness of generic expectation. If that makes any sense...

TC said...

I just dropped by and don't know the players but just wanted to tell you that I don't think you sound stilted at all Kent I think you sound HOT!


Paris Hilton

Kent Johnson said...

Thanks, Tom. Many, many people think so, of course.

That's a run-on sentence in your comment, sorry to say.