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Katlin Profile
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Q&A


I have a question, and I hope some of you will have an answer.

My problem with some (post?) avant-garde or experimental writing is that I don’t know how to read it. Oh, I can read the words, usually, but the words taken together make little or no sense to me. It’s like people are speaking a secret language, and I don’t have a secret decoder ring or know the secret handshake. I don’t get it, and I can’t figure out how to get it. This in turn leads to a number of thoughts. Perhaps there is something wrong with me: I’m stupid, unimaginative, unenlightened, bourgeois (often the avant-garde indicate these things are in fact the case). Sometimes I think: It’s not me; it’s them. They’re scam artists, delusional or just mucking around, laughing at the consternation they cause.

So here’s my question: What, if anything, can I do? I realize by saying “I don’t get it,” I am revealing a certain bias on my part. Maybe there is nothing to get, just an experience to be had, but when I say “I don’t get it,” I actually mean that to. I don’t have the experience that other people seem to that enables them to say, “Brilliant.” or “Oh, this is good. I like it.” or “No, although I am a big fan of your work, this isn’t up to your usual standards.” or even “This doesn't work for me.” Well, I could often say, “This doesn't work for me,” but I don’t think most experimental writers would consider it an informed opinion.


Last edited by Katlin, Feb/1/2010, 4:29 pm
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Terreson Profile
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Good on you, Katfriend. Good topic for discussion. I'll bet we don't come out of it with anything like a consensus, or agreement. But it will be fun to dig down into the question.

Speaking for myself I actually think I am an experimentalist in language and syntax. But I am told I am not. Just a Modernist whose paradigms have been superceded, whatever that means. So I would like to hear from other side(s). I would like to learn something.

We got a good mix of people for the purpose. Perhaps the only camp the board lacks is the Neo-Formalist, or New Formalism, camp mainly working in closed-verse, traditional forms. Now that could be an interesting take. Anyone know of such a poet willing to enter into the discussion?

A funny thought here. I say about bee keepers that each one has found the right way to manage colonies and no two bee keepers agree. Sound familiar to all you poets?

Tere
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.


           Accessible



I haven’t read much poetry lately;
after all, I have to write it.
I can’t be unduly influenced
or misdirected. And damn!
I’m just now shaking off
Shelley and Poe,
Cummings and Frost,
just now releasing the howl
and its cost,
the tyger burning bright
and the dying of the light.

But I’ve read all of the dead ones
and most of those living,
the famous and neglected.
I just don’t resonate
with the new ones.
They don’t make sense to me.
I don’t get it!
Oh, I get the point, all right,
I just can’t find the poetry.




.
Copyright 2009 - Ponds and Lawns, Gary B. Fitzgerald
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Katlin Profile
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Tere and Gary,

One thing that I've noticed is that if an experimental poem has a lyrical quality I can pick up on, it helps me navigate the poem on one level. If an experiemental doesn't have that quality, and some purposely don't, then if I can get a feel for why the poem is anti-lyrical, that can be a help as well. Barring that, I'm lost somewhere between babble and Babel, feeling bored, spirited and confused.

Last edited by Katlin, Feb/3/2010, 6:35 pm
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Dragon59 Profile
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Well, I've tried four times to post a reply to this thread, but it keeps crashing, so either there's something wrong with Runboard, or I'm being blocked. Whatever.

Last edited by Dragon59, Feb/4/2010, 11:37 pm


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I see your post, Dragon. Nobody gets blocked here. Whatever.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Feb/5/2010, 1:59 am
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Don't know if this is relevant but I think it's at least interesting; from an article on
Sam Shepard, the actor and playwrite:

"I preferred a character that was constantly
unidentifiable," Shepard said. As he explained in his notes to the actors in "Angel City" (1975), instead of embodying a "whole character" the actor should consider his performance "a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme," and "aim to make a kind of music or painting in space without having to feel the need to completely answer intellictually for the character's behavior."

Chris
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Kat's comment is interesting to me. I remember thinking along similar lines some years ago when I was reading the so-called New York School poets; Ashbery, Padgett, O'Hara, et al. I remember that O'Hara struck me as the best of the bunch, the most effective, the one who spoke to me the most. I wrote in an essay it was because of his employment of the lyrical I/Thou address that, in my view, served like a ground wire in his poetry. I still feel that way.

And yes, Chrisfriend, I think Shepard's comment could be relevant. I think I get what he meant. And I suspect his intention is in the mix of what many experimentalists in poetry are after these days. This especially: '"a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme..."' For me the question becomes: can the various experimental intentions in theater, music, or painting get successfully carried over into poetry? Or maybe just how far can language, which is what poetry is limited to, being a literal form of communication, how far can it be stretched before the sense of the syntax becomes its opposite, which is nonsense?

Zakman said something once that has stuck with me. It was in response to one of my more difficult poems. He said, in paraphrase, if he is presented with a poem less than accessbile how many times should he try to make sense of it before questioning whether or not the effort is worth it? Conversely, and in response to a more easily accessible poem of mine, he said, again in paraphrase, 'you really do want to communicate with people, don't you?'

On the other hand, and viewed from the poetry experimentalist's side of the barricade, there is something a Scottish philosopher said not long ago about poetry in general. Something to give warrant to certain experimentalist objectives: "Poetry is forever fighting against the pressures and seductive power of ordinary language to falsify experience in easy, slack cliche. Poetry feels itself often up against the 'the limits of language', and forced to modify, maybe do violence to normal syntax." This too has for long stuck with me.

For me at least, these two pillars frame Kat's question and between which the space of poetry gets explored. Poetry is a literal art. Like it or not it is built on and limited by language's syntax. And if poetry stops being a form of communication between two people does it stop being poetry? (My sense is that it does.) But the philosopher is right too. Especially where he draws attention to poetry's fight against ordinary language to falsify experience. This fight is where, still in my view only, poetry rejuvenates language by stripping away the cliche, especially the cliche of emotion.

It all makes for a balancing act, a high wire walk with no net as I said in an ars poetica kind of poem. How to keep the poem communicatively grounded while at the same time stripping away another of language's uses, which is to falsify experience? And again maybe more than anything else the experience of emotion. This is where the experimentalist fails for me. It is where the poem does not communicate experience, my personal emphasis remains on the experience of emotion, and becomes a kind of linguistic glass bead game. I guess I still want poetry to ground me and still in the way nothing else can.

Gary, I've read your poem before. It is a good one. It works for you and unequivocally states your rejection of certain poetic practices. It occurs to me I envy you in a way. I get restless and have a horror of repeating myself in poetry. And so with each new collection, stylistically, I am looking for a new approach. Sometimes I court the danger of incomprehensibility.

WHOA NELLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BINGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That word: incomprehensibility Just this moment I remember something Ezra Pound said I would have read a good fifteen years ago when reading a biography on him. Something he would have said easily fifty years ago and maybe more. This is quoted from memory and quoted exactly because burned in my brain. He said: The greatest danger Modern Poetry faces is incomprehensibility. How 'bout them apples, boys and girls? And for sweet irony there is that ole Ez set the stage for the play's run. I mean what are his Cantos if not damn near incomprehensible? A seond question comes out of the first. So what exactly are the qualitative differences between Pound's Cantos linguistic means and what nowadays experimentalists employ?

Sorry for the length. Nobody asked for a treatise. But once again someone here got me to thinking and remembering stuff that may or may not matter.

Tere
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Dragon59 Profile
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1. If a poem NEEDS a secret decoder ring, then chances are it was written by someone out of an ideological viewpoint, in which the theory dictated the practice. (Almost always a bad idea.) In which case, it's not you, it's them. A certain amount of elitism is in play.

2. Theory needn't be necessary to understand a poem. However, and this a major however, what we usually take for granted as what a lyric poem, or what an epic is—that IS a poem theory. Just as music theory describes the form and structure of Western tonal music, which was for centuries a shared tradition, in exactly the same way traditional, pre-Modernist theories of versification, etc., also came out of a shared tradition. So, when we say we can understand a lyric poem and not an experimental poem, what we're really saying is that we've already learned how to understand a lyric poem, but haven't yet learned how to understand the other.

In other words, assuming that one style of poetry is more understandable than the other ONLY tells us that you grew up with the one—that shared cultural tradition upon which traditional theory is based—and not with the other. Had you grown up on a diet of more avant-poetry, you might find Keats to be the problem.

3. One of the primary aspects of Language Poetry, and much of its heirs, what Ron Silliman calls the post-avant, is that it IS indeed all about the language, and not about the meaning. LangPo is explicitly and deliberately about the language, and nothing else. Silliman's manifesto, "The New Sentence," lays this out as clear as day. Some of what Charles Bernstein has opined does likewise.

So, there may be no meaning for you to "get" when you read such poetry. If you're looking for meaning in this kind of poetry, remember that many of those poets are openly anti-meaning.

Many sub-styles of that post-avant poetry really are all about surface, and not about depth. Some post-avant theories explicitly state that the poetry is all about surface, and not about meaning. It's about wordplay, among other things. All the effects are quite deliberately meant to short-circuit and deny meaning—the kind of meaning that lyric poetry, and other "known" styles of poetry, are all about. In some ways, this stuff is indeed anti-poetry.

4. You're right: "This doesn't work for me" is not a critique most experimental writers would accept. Not that they would deny your reaction, which is a valid reaction. Rather, they would accept the lack of a connection between you and the poem—but that's not very useful to any poet, in whatever style.

5. As someone who regularly gets accused of writing "experimental" poetry, I don't worry about it that much. I write what I write: the labels that are applied to my poems are not my labels, and I usually don't care either way. If it bothers me, it's only on the level of feeling continuously misunderstood. Everyone likes to be understood.

But you yourself have demonstrated that you really "get" what I'm doing in a lot of my own "non-linear" or "non-narrative" or "non-typical"poetry; or when I use non-normative syntax, or non-standard grammar. Thus, I would say to you:

Actually, I think you understand more than you think you do.

So, if you're not getting a certain poem, it's probably not you that has the problem, but the poem. There may be no "there" there, to get.

And then there's just the law of percentages. Just because a poem is obscure and hard to understand doesn't mean it's profound or good. On average, most poetry is crap—no matter what style it's written in. Again, that's not the reader's problem; nor is it the reader's fault.



That's what I was TRYING to post. Seriously, it crashed every time before.

Last edited by Dragon59, Feb/6/2010, 3:27 am


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Patricia Jones Profile
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I didn't intend to enter this thread but it speaks so loudly to difficulties I have, too.

Dragon says:

3. One of the primary aspects of Language Poetry, and much of its heirs, what Ron Silliman calls the post-avant, is that it is indeed all about the language, and not about the meaning.

That's exactly where I get lost...or maybe get lost because I have no desire to even try, as much as I love language, to understand a poem that is intended to have no meaning.

If I were able to see performance poetry often, I might feel differently, see and hear it differently...but I think it would be because I found some meaning in it seeing it performed. Language without meaning, poetry without meaning just doesn't compute for me.

My 2 cents....and, believe me, they are worth even less than that.

Pat



---
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Dragon59 Profile
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Actually, I understand the varieties of poetry that try to take meaning out of the poet's hands, and put it into the reader's. A lot of post-avant poetry claims to be trying to do just that: letting the reader find their own meaning, or create it, out of the text. A lot of "found" writing, including flarf and oulipo, make these sort of claims, as do many branches of post-avant poetry. And the means they use to that end—indeterminacy, chance operations, random forms, and, conversely, total structural determinism—I also understand. (Language poetry and neo-formalist poetry may seem diametrically opposed, but in fact they share much philosophical ground.)

Understanding the means, and the goals, doesn't mean I accept the results, though. It's always been interesting to me that I appreciate so much of the artistic philosophy behind the post-avant (much of which can be traced to the generation of John Cage and friends), yet so often find the results to be uninteresting, even unreadable. With rare exceptions, I find most post-avant poetry to be pointless game-playing. Once you figure out the poem's gimmick, who cares? And wants to re-read it? Not I.

The proof of the pudding is always in the reading. If a reader gets meaning out of a given poem, I have no problem with it, even if I don't get meaning out of it. That's not a call for total relativism; it's just a recognition that tastes differ.

But that doesn't mean I want to read a lot of a post-avant poem, or pursue writing it. It's not a game I'm interested in.

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Good thinking, fertile thinking all around.

I am not sure I can agree with Dragon's Point 2/subset either poetically, philosophically, linguistically, or psychologically: "In other words, assuming that one style of poetry is more understandable than the other ONLY tells us that you grew up with the one—that shared cultural tradition upon which traditional theory is based—and not with the other. Had you grown up on a diet of more avant-poetry, you might find Keats to be the problem."

On the face of it, the notion seems common sensical. But the gestalt of form recognition has been demonstrated both philosophically and psychologically. There are archetypes that transcend local environment and formative conditions. To me this is key. Add to which that, biologically, gestalt of form recognition has also been demonstrated. So I think you can i.d. a poem irrespective of style, manner, milieu, or training. One 19th C folklorist, after studying the Strege (witchy women) of Italy, called what gets carried over in poetry a matter of 'poetry of thought.' I think he was right. There is such an animal, this poetry of thought. It has gestalt and it is universal.

Said differently I get Swinburne in spite of, not because of, his Victorian conventions. I can say the same about a lang-po poet who used to come around here from time to time. When she frees herself of her theories Dmanister's poetry is hot to trot and I viscerally respond to it.

So no. Speaking for myself only, can't speak for anyone else, the complaint of some post post post post post post post post avante garde poet who tells me I can't get her poetry because I am limited to stylistic prejudices, it just doesn't wash anymore.

Tere
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quote:


So here’s my question: What, if anything, can I do?



Hi, Katlin. I don't think one can lump in all this poetry together and come up with any credible answer to this one, so I'd probably suggest that if you ever come across a poem that falls under your general (and vast) definition that you like in any way, maybe try to get closer to it and see what it's doing that you find interesting. It's all just ordinary poetry really, just people saying stuff about who they are and how they are getting on with this big trip we are all on together. The LangPo people are/were engaged in pointing out how you can't just ignore the impact that all those years of language association have had on what language means to us. So they are saying slow down and look at this... It's not just a neutral medium. While you are using it to get your message across the language is doing its own things and playing tricks that you didn't intend. So they are second guessing the language trickster and trying to mean their language.

So they are still just writing poetry about how they are finding incarnation. Their personalities still come through loud and clear (loud unclear?). You don't have to get into all the details of linguistics like the origo and the tagmeme to get what they are doing, and I don't think they ever intended that you should. They are just seeing if it's possible to write beneath the message, in the substrate itself. That's my take on it anyway.

I guess what I'm saying is that you don't have to feel alienated by any of it. It's all just multifarious humanity doing stuff. There's no chaos in it like there is in Geology or the weather. It's human stuff without close chaos.

Anyway, even if it was utterly alien, like an actual alien, wouldn't you want to look at it closely and imagine how it could appear beautiful to other members of its own species? If a poem was an actual living creature, you wouldn't think of saying no this is just ugly and impossible to understand. I know you're not saying that anyway.

But I do think the real big thing here is addressing all of these different kinds of poetry as one thing. I'd go for starting a poem at a time, and see if one of them speaks to you in any way. We all know how one song or one piece of music can be a bridge to a whole new style of music that felt alien before. It's sometimes been the same for me with styles of poetry. Somewhere in this wall is a door that anyone can walk through.

Just some thoughts anyway. Not pretending to know the answer, if there is one.

But don't forget nothing is compulsory either. No one has any obligation to like anything. 'I just don't get it' sounds like a perfectly reasonable position to me.

Steve.

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Katlin (too good a name to shorten, I'm afraid): by the way, I wouldn't worry too much about understanding poetry. Poetry that really needs to be understood is, by definition, propaganda for one understanding of life or a situation within life. All poetry is actually impossible to understand, but we've been sold the idea for 3000 years that a narrative and a clear voice makes for objectivity. Of course it doesn't at all, but it's only in the last 100 years or so in the West that people have started really playing with that and acknowledging it. I personally don't see how it's any easier to understand the reality of a poem that states 'I was in love it ended I am now very sad' than it is to understand a poem by Jeremy Prynne that offers no narrative at all, and doesn't insult the reader by assuming that he/she is susceptible to slogans and anthems.

Maybe the idea is that none of this stuff that we were all supposed to assume was the benchmark for making sense actually reaqlly makes sense at all, because for a start we don't entirely know what sense is anyway when it comes to a very limited medium like language and the possibility of making genuine statements with it. So maybe it's worth looking at that idea that so much of it is still outside of our control, and starting there... Maybe we need to get to a place where we don't need straightforward structures and narratives, but can just get with the music, the night, the ochre, the strange words, the evocation, and what gets summoned up. If I want a dark acidic rite of poetry, I sure don't want a tour guide sitting next to me feeding me prompts. I want to be lost in it and fucked by it.

TURN ALL THE LIGHTS OUT AND KILL ALL THE ROADSIGNS!!! :0)

Anyway, I'm just going with the idea a bit. Hope you don't mind.

Steve.

Last edited by SteveParker, Feb/7/2010, 7:07 pm
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Katlin Profile
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Hi guys,

I want to thank you all for your comments! I was feeling a bit under the weather the last few days and wasn't able to spend much time on the board or to concentrate very well when I was here. Now, I have a bunch of comments to read, and I can't wait. I'm going to take my time working through the thread, responding as I go.

One note to everyone: If you have any technical difficulties with the board, please don't hesitate to contact runboard support for help. The support staff respond quickly, are friendly and eager to help:

http://www.runboard.com/bakheva

They have been making changes to runboard, as you have probably noticed, so that may account for some of the glitches to the board folks have been experiencing.
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Haven't really noticed the changes, but I have noticed that the daily downtime seems to be a lot longer than it used to be. So they are definitely up to some mischief. Runboard must be a US thing, as they start the downtime at around 10am my time, which is probably pretty quiet in US time with all you sleepyheads logged out and dreaming of coyotes and pumpkin pie, or whatever it is youse Americans dream about.

:0)

Steve.

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Oh, I am really going off topic here, Katfriend. Feel free to delete my post.

A favorite book of mine is said to have sold 17 copies in its author's lifetime. It was his favorite of all his books too. Stendhal's De L'Amour. I still have my copy purchased in the early seventies. A Penguin pub that cost me $2.95 U.S. In it he dissects love, the different kinds of love, from vanity love to romantic love. He also gives a perfectly reasoned argument for womens' rights, especially with regard to education. This, written in 1821. He then goes on to describe the national character of love: how the French love, the Russians, the English, the Italians, and the Americans. The Italians fare the best. The Americans the worst. Pretty much he found us lacking in the capacity, especially for romantic love, being very cold and businesslike in our personal affairs. So my question is this: Is there a national character to dreams? I mean what do the French dream about, the Russians, the English, the Italians, and the Americans? What do the Chinese dream about? What do Aussies dream about. You reckon I can get a grant with which to conduct the study?

Tere
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That's interesting. It's usually the English who get accused of being cold and unromantic by the rest of Europe. It's nonsense, of course, but we do have that Germanic streak...

I wonder what he would say now. America was a pretty romantic place in 1821 anyway, far more so than now. It was a rough and exciting and vibrant wayward child of a place. Still is in lots of ways, of course, but it was still a lot of frontier back then, and all of Europe was quite captivated by the endeavour, especially the English, who, despite the idiot machinations of George III, still always regarded America as our close relative, which it certainly was back then. Anyway, it seems a bit of an unfair analysis to me. I suspect he had probably only met a few fat East Coast waistcoated worthies on whom to base his theory. In fact, the more I think about this idea, the more wrong I think he is. I bet he would have said the same about the Scottish Highlanders (and others), who also lived a sort of frontier life, but who have passed down a vision of almost incomparable romance that has nothing to do with High Culture Europe or rare perfumes or courtly dances.

Dreams: I bet just about everyone in the world dreams pretty much the same stuff in their various codings. The codes are no doubt different, but I suspect the messages are pretty uniform.

Steve.
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Well I don't know. Steve. Were I Swiss I would be dreaming about Gruyere cheese. English and I would decidedly be dreaming about Huntsman. Italian and it would be gorganzola. French it might be brie. Canadian and without doubt it would be 12 year aged Black Diamond white cheddar. American? Not much dream material to be found in cheese here me thinks. But we need the emperical proof. I am going for that grant.

Tere
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Finally got around to reading this thread. What riches! I thank you all for that. I have been reading some of Bernstein's My Way as well as revisiting an old interview with Mac Low. Mac Low says some interesting things, and Bernstein is more nuanced than I expected him to be, based on blurbs I've read online. I've been toying with the idea of making a found poem of some of their comments as part of my reckoning with this topic. Now I think I may have to throw some of your comments here into the mix. I am going to have to reread this thread a few more times before I can begin to take in all the richness. One thing I am taking from your comments is that I should probably start out reading avant poetry the way I read poetry in a style I am more familiar with, i.e., by just going through the poem and following my own associations. My reactions/observations may not constitute a critique, but they are a place to start.

If I dream a little dream of cheese, it would probably be extra sharp New York or Vermont cheddar. emoticon
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