Matthew Zapruder has written a piece at the Poetry Foundation calling for a new criticism of poetry to guide readers past their resistance to the unfamiliar. Poetry, more than the other arts, suffers from this resistance because “poets take the material that we depend on to operate in and make sense of the world (language), and bend it to other, often seemingly obscure, purposes.”
Now, considering that operating in the world covers pretty much everything, including making sense of the world, just what might those other purposes be? I dunno, but apparently critics can help because without them “we will hold on to the familiar and be unable to accept that there are other uses for language, that there is new and exciting poetry all around us.” And they’ll help by giving us the right terms to use in thinking about and analyzing poetry, just as art critics gave viewers the right terms to use in analyzing non-representational painting: even if we don’t like it, we “know there is a difference between abstraction and representation.”
Never mind the circularity. Let’s accept for a moment that people aren’t buying new kinds of poetry (are they buying any kind of poetry?) because they don’t have the analytical tools to appreciate the new kinds of poetry. Zapruder has some suggestions. The first is a distinction between “lyric” and “narrative” poetry, which he admits is perhaps problematic because, among other things, they aren’t mutually exclusive:
The story and the song go hand in hand. The terms “narrative” and “lyric” sound good, but they don’t really help make actual distinctions between kinds of poems; ultimately, the terms just become ways of describing various social communities. A “conservative” magazine publishes “narrative” poetry, and an “experimental” journal publishes “lyric” poetry, etc., though of course immediately in the course of saying this it becomes clear that those terms, narrative and lyric, no longer refer to the actual mechanisms of the poems, but are mere shorthands for degrees of supposed experimentation and coolness. Which is useless to understanding poetry.
Amen to that last. And it’s good to know that my triolets are experimental, or at least cool, if they eschew narrative.
The last half of the essay explores a distinction he proposes might actually be useful:
Does the poem have a single, particular, specified consciousness, speaking in a relatively identifiable situation? Or does the poem have a less defined consciousness, speaking without need of or reference to a particular situation?
You can see this is something like abstract side of the representational/abstract distinction in the visual arts — words spoken by no one in particular about nothing in particular. But there’s an important difference between visual imagery and language which Zapruder and too many advocates of “the new” in poetry ignore.
We try to make sense of, to recognize visual images; we play games with them (camels in the clouds); we like or dislike them; we find them interesting or boring; they go with the sofa or they don’t — but for most of us they are not tools. Language is a fundamental tool for all of us. It is literally the way we make sense of the world, even of a painting by Jackson Pollock, even, as Zapruder admits, of a poem by Rae Armantrout.
Deranging the senses is different from deranging thought. To like the way a painting looks in a room does not require an understanding of the painting. Word salad is a symptom of brain damage — it’s scary noise, and I suspect that’s the reason so much experimental poetry is jokey. If you can’t laugh at it, it’s time to run away.
Update 23:04: I should have pointed out two other important differences between sight and language. First, a blue patch means nothing until we’ve built an image out of its relation to other patches of color, while words mean something in and of themselves. Second, sight is profoundly nonlinear, with the gaze saccading all over a scene as we take it in to build that image, but language is serial, linear — one word after another as we build up meaning.