The Locus of Poetry

» Co-working
By Ryan Nance1

So, it’s telling that in this prose that I am writing, my first tendency is to reach for a definition of poetry, for my own, for someone else’s (Hass’ lovely ‘a poem is the score written for the symphony of the singular human voice’ is a favorite) or a historical pedigree (something half-remembered about poem and cheetah having the same Indo-European root, something to do with creature or creation). I started thumbing through my old and loved American Heritage Dictionary’s appendix… but then put it aside for later.

The impulse of prose is to haul the goldfish that lives deep in the well up to the surface with whatever bucket-type implement there is at hand. Poetry (creation of the non-prosaic sort) has an impulse to jump into the well.

So often I get asked about a poem’s meaning, and this is certainly indicative of how poetry is taught, viewed, shared and feared. It is a meaning-making game in the eyes of man, a demi-god’s pantomime.

There is something to Hass’ definition that avers the meaning, that puts it in its proper place: the mind of the reader as the poem and its sibilants and consonants, sounding so much like recognizable language, pass simultaneously though the lips and consciousness of the reader. As much as I wish (as a poet) that poetry were a master at words playing with words, the commonest of materials, it is really an act of imaginative reading. A poem does not exist until it passes through the reader’s eyes, lips and mind. The reader creates the poem at the moment of reading, much the way that a musician creates the music from the score he is given.

And it’s clear how taking all of the audience and making them the artists is a real departure from how poetry is so often thought of and talked of, whispered of, feared, explicated and venerated.

One of my favorite ways to talk about this is to point to a favorite word-poem and insist that the poor soul I am ranting at read it aloud (to me if they are so bold, or around the corner if not):

Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
read by Ryan Nance2
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Most do pretty well through most of the poem, imitating the poet-voice they’ve heard somewhere, in a recording, at school, or from some elder somewhere. But then they get to the very last sentence, the second half of the last line, and in reading it aloud they realize they need to make the meaning before they can utter the sounds. What DOES that line mean? they wonder silently in all of their human curiosity, and they realize, as they take their first tentative step that they don’t know if they chose the path the author intended (Oh! if only Rilke were here to tell us the meaning! they lament).

Ultimately they either use their imaginations to instantly—at the provocation of this string of letters arranged in some particular order—create something, to become the demi-gods themselves… or they view it as a cryptological artifact of some greater existence.

I know that a lot of the classmates I had in graduate school, far more published and lauded classmates than I, and most of the professors, award-winning, immovably monolithic masters, would not only disagree, but scoff at and dismiss this idea.

No, wait, that’s not fair. I don’t know at all what they would say. I did a little ploy there, a trick of the logic, see?

It has occurred to me that poems are little word-machines that measure the effects as they break across readers’ faces. These days, I am a web worker. My title is User Experience Designer, which is a mealy mouthful. One of the first principles that I learned to hang onto when working at designing the users’ experiences is that it is the user’s experience. I can’t have their experience for them, and that changed my thought process in a way that brought me back to writing poems. The poems I’ve written are unplugged machines until they are read. Often they are read aloud by me, which is something else to talk about, but it is when they are read aloud by others that they really come to life.

And that is a simple fact: that I as the creator, as the poet, as the mind and spirit that arranged the sounds and images and words and lines, cannot ultimately bring the poem to life.

While speech implies presence (even if it is telepresence or time-shifted presence), the written word necessitates absence. And just writing that line brought to mind the question of locus. Where does the poem reside? In the classical and ancient times when there was no writing, or no writing beyond tallies and ledgers, how did poems exist? Or more correctly where did they exist?

It’s much like asking where music exists. In his Languages of Art, Nelsen Goodman draws a sharp distinction between painting and music in terms of the singularity of the work. Music is by default plural: even the same musician playing exactly the same notes in exactly the same way doesn’t create a copy of an original that existed in some other time or some other place. A painting is by default singular: even the same painter, painting the same images with the same brushstrokes in the same way ends up with an original and a copy. Certainly action painting, sensitive to that question of locus, worked to undermine the singularity of painting, but the very process ensured that there were multiple originals rather than a plural work of art.

I had the great fortune to study ancient Chinese calligraphy with a visiting professor, Robert E. Harrist, Jr., who was also the guest curator of an exhibit at the Met called the Embodied Image. And it seemed to me almost ridiculous the heights that the Chinese (and then later the western) scholars took the art of calligraphy. It was after all, decoration, right? The art was alongside the calligraphy on the scroll they shared, the poetry was in the language it was writing down again. How could calligraphy as an art stand beside poetry and painting?

Again, those questions about locus. Whose art was this? Whose art was painting even? Or music?

There was an old Chinese grandpa, a retired general from Chaing Kai-Shek’s army, living a quiet life in Taipei when I met him. He’d been educated in a very traditional Chinese sense, with a strong emphasis on writing poetry, practicing calligraphy, reciting philosophy. There were afternoons when he would shut the sliding panel doors of his study, unfurl a blank scroll on his padded table, weighing each corner of it down with a stone polished through repeated human contact. He would grind his little ink stone, mixing in the water, getting the consistency right, inspecting the hairs on his brushes. It was all so rhythmic and beautiful. And such a ritual. I certainly could understand the appeal.

He would sit with his back as straight as when he’d been instructed as a primary schooler in his chair and write out, without much of a pause, a 60 character poem, a famous one, one of his favorites. Almost always the same poem. I could never get the name of the poem or poet out of him, and I certainly couldn’t read his flowing grass script, such were the abbreviations and elisions of the proper characters. But the scrolls, after his 45 minutes of intense writing, were gorgeous. The kind of thing I would have loved to have brought back and put up on my wall, pointed to over a balloon goblet of Malbec at a dinner party with smart friends.

He would let each scroll dry for half an hour or so, sprinkle some cornstarch powder over the top, shake it clean, roll it up and stick it in a cabinet with several score other scrolls (many most likely of the exact same poem). It puzzled me a great deal. Here I was thinking he was trying to perfect the scroll, repeating the same poem again and again.

One day I asked him about it. Why do you keep writing the same poem? All the scrolls are beautiful. Do you expect to get an even more beautiful one some day? I imagined an answer very different than what I got. He said something to the effect of writing the poem was the best way he knew to experience the poem.

Often I have heard the complaints of the death of poetry, death of reading, of literature, of art. I hear that the audience is too ready to be seduced by (first) the movies, television and (now) the Internet. Too caught up in the material these days to have the patience, skill or inclination to be bothered to take the active and imaginative role as the audience of Art. This is simply bullshit, the nostalgia that always shimmers the air with its searing heat as we look behind us.

There was a time when everyone who mattered in (any particular) society had read the same poems, memorized the same lines, practiced the same forms. It was also true (and nearly always forgotten) that “everyone who mattered” was a very different (much smaller and less inclusive than most of us could stomach these days) group. It makes most of the lamenting seem to be from those who have some vested interest in the canon, since it is the canon that has died, been overrun and outmatched by the unprecedented abundance of poems, poets, forms, voices, intentions and types of art. More people, and a larger percentage of people, read and write poems (in all their forms) than at any other time in our history. There are more books of any sort and more readers, reading more, more styles. There are works of poetry or fiction, rap lyrics, folk lyrics, thrash and post-punk lyrics, multi-media, multi-dimension performance poems that break into the space of the everyday, in invisible ways and in very, very visible ways.

And those that complain about any type of creation as being smug, or high fallutin’ or opaque are simply reading the wrong poems for them at that moment, and those who complain about any type of creation as being base, or stupid, or lowbrow, or commercial are simply reading the wrong poems for them at that moment. Or perhaps it’s not the poems that they are really concerned with at all. I know that I, as my high school self, complained about Dickinson as being “so blah” and “so opaque (I felt powerful just wielding that word of revolution, of refusal, of usurpation as a mere 16 years old!), and I believed it at the time.

Some poets and poems concern themselves with extending the canvas, some with adding contour and shading.

2     Archaic Torso of Apollo, read by Ryan Nance.

4 Comments on “The Locus of Poetry”

  1. August 18th, 2010 | 4:39 pm

    Ryan, this is wonderful but I still have some questions that I hope you can help me answer, thus I’d like for you to temporarily take the role of poetic authority.

    Can you talk a bit more about the expectations and/or conventions of the reader and/or reading? For instance, there is a real sense of work at hand when navigating a poem, and at times the work seems like hard work. Is the difficulty inherent in producing unconventional relations, as a reader, viewer and/or interpreter, rendering these mediums obscure beyond availability? And thus, is the difficult work involved in poetry, or the apprehension of poetry, similar to the work inherent in “reading” conceptual art?

    I ask this last bit because I’ve recently been involved in a conversation with a family member where they were repulsed by conceptual art because they felt as though the artists were “talking above” them. In this case, regarding the failed interpretation of the work, the artist has failed at producing an audience member. Further more, in lieu of interpretive support, another member of the audience for John Ruskin is born in so far as an entire public is created and/or identified through a collective repulsion of the “arrogance of art and its impudent artist.” Do you think that it’s possible that the immaterial medium of both conceptual art and poetry is unfortunately operating in an economy of attention that is too abstract, and not instantly consumable, for total collective participation and exchange?

    [I know these questions are super generalizing, so try to bear with me. Next questions will pertain to the visual artist’s use of the term “poetic” in discursive applications, as well as the business of education in the world of poetry.]

  2. August 19th, 2010 | 2:46 am

    I think there is a whole framework propping up the idea that the thing you do with/to art is to judge it. I know that often the inability of an audience member to articulate a judgement of the poetry/art/conceptual piece causes great distress, anxiety, an aching whistle in the world.

    Part of why I love to insist that poetry is read aloud is because art/poetry is experienced, not judged.

    I think this primary value of art/poetry is exposed in subtle ways. But the higher the art is perceived to be, the more the pressure to ejudicate becomes.

    When the reader isn’t yoked with the burden of ejudication, but asked merely to create the poem, the work shifts from being hard work to difficult work. It certainly is difficult to create a poem through reading, but it is satisfying creative work, as any artist knows, as any cook, brick layer, accountant, human being knows.

  3. August 19th, 2010 | 5:47 pm

    of course, rather than “ejudicate” i meant “adjudicate”.

  4. August 19th, 2010 | 7:18 pm

    Thank you Ryan, for this insightful discussion on poetry and your take on the subject. Your articulation of the Rilke piece is stimulating and on point. Tobey, I was fortunate enough to sit in a lecture with Kevin Dean, a mutual friend and esteemed art historian. He discussed the misunderstanding of new art students within his history class and the point was soon understood that the lack of interest within the student as far as research is concerned undermines the information the student receives. Be it poetry, abstract art or a film, if there is substance within the subject that the viewer is unaware of, dismissing any further information discovered by future research outside of the first experience, deems improper to dismiss the work in question as too abstract to understand. It is, after all, the viewers responsibility to either find understanding in something or not. For example, viewing a painting full of iconography, an uneducated participant takes what they want from it, but after some understanding captures the essence of the reason behind the work rather than its aesthetic significance. At the same time, a poem, painting or other form of art is so awesome as it allows the viewer to make their own assessment, at first meeting. I feel it is necessary to further one’s understanding before placing judgement.