Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Essence of Poesie

K. Silem Mohammad has an excellent reaction to Ron Silliman's reluctant definition of poetry, which is very relevant for my previous post on institutions. I especially like the detailed transformations of his examples.

One thing to emphasize is that what makes a group of words a poem and what makes a poem good are two different but very related questions. The first question can be answered with the sorts of exercises Kasey takes us through. Starting with,

"There are apples on the sofa,"

which he suggests is not very poetic, he shows, by degrees, that the art of making this, let us say, sentiment into a poem is a matter of forcing an "affective response". I would say we are looking for an "emotional effect", or simply looking to "install an affect" on the page.

The first step, which Kasey does not take explicitly, is to transform the proposition into an image. This is easily done by sabotaging its predicating elements. We then have,

"apples on the sofa."

While the difference is very small, honest readers will have to admit that they feel more about this second group of words than the first. Not much more. But more.

Kasey now introduces a standard poetic effect, namely, alliteration (what Pound would class as melopoeia, i.e, using the sound of the words to "induce emotional correlations").

"fruit on the futon"

I don't think there's any question that this is more poetic than "apples on the sofa", even if we are dealing only with "a mild sense of amusement". The last step brings us up to institutions.

"The fruit on the futon,"

says Kasey, could, in certain contexts, be the image of a homosexual on a fold-out bed. We are now dealing with patently institutional matters of sexual conduct. (But furniture was all along a highly institutional matter qua "immediate sense of what is done". The trick was to bring its suitability for certain kinds of activity to presence.) This is not yet a good poem, but it is well on its way, and it accomplishes its poesie, I would argue, by directing our attention toward institutions, which are the real "medium" of poetry. More thrillingly, a group of words becomes a poem by playing on our sense of decency.

Lastly, in response to Kasey's response to my response to Ron, "Can't concepts involve emotions, or vice versa?" No. But the reasons for this are entirely analytic and probably won't satisfy either. Actual groups of words that are dominantly poetic (vs. philosophical), and which may therefore be called "poems", can, indeed, involve concepts, but they become less poetic (and more philosophical) as a result . . . and vice versa. Actually, it's a very good question and I'll write a post on it very soon.


Darren said...
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Jordan said...

This is an excellent take on K.'s original post. It puts an indistinct timeframe on how rapidly or slowly it takes to develop the line--but the effect is exactly how you both describe it.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Jordan. Time is an important aspect. I'll try to say something more precise about it later on. If you have any ideas they're more than welcome.

Laura Carter said...

Uh-oh. There is a question. I find "apples on the sofa" more poetic.

Laura Carter said...

Which is to say that I would use it. But I also have reasons. Would you like to hear them?

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, of course.

Laura Carter said...

Apples are a type of fruit, & they come in nice colors: red, yellow, green, bruised, etc.

I could write up two or three pages of sonic reasons, but I don't have time right now. I'll leave it at: "fruit on the futon" is too much for me.

And what happens if I think of papaya & you think of Ginsberg?

PS Thanks

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for that, Laura. Thinking it over, I'm sure you could make a better poem with a pile of apples and a sofa than I could with a fruit and a futon.

I'm retreating here to the distinction between what makes a group of words a poem and what makes a poem good.

With effort, you or WCW could produce a poem that included the words "apples on the sofa" and it may be a very good poem.

An unschooled child could produce a poem using "fruit on the futon" and amuse herself with it, not the critics. (Next line involving "cabbage and croutons".)

I could have written a poem in high school (I was not writing poetry in high school) about "the fruit on the futon", which would have been awful and offensive, but "poetic" in the basic sense Kasey was playing with.

In short, the work you would have to do situate "apples on the sofa" among other words in order to construct a poem is greater than the work you would have to do situate "fruit on the futon".

In fact, now that I'm thinking about this (thanks for making me think about this) Flarf probably works with materials intentionally "apples on the sofa"-esque. In that difficulty to find new beauty.


Laura Carter said...

For what it's worth, I had not read that post before I tried to respond here. That's my bad.

But I still think "apples on the sofa" has potential. Not exactly sure why. I've eaten an apple, but I've never eaten a fruit.

Laura Carter said...

It's too difficult to talk about this without knowing what happens to the "stuff", for me. Is that institution?

K. Silem Mohammad said...

One problem with my original thesis is that any phrase, once you've turned it over in your mind for awhile, becomes poetic. Like Laura, I now think that "apples on the sofa" is "poetic." But really, the problem with what I was saying goes deeper than that. Although it's possible to consider the poeticity of discrete words and phrases in isolation (say, from a Jakobsonian perspective, focusing on repeated sounds and structural equivalences, as I've been doing), is that this only gets at a definition of the linguistic dimensions of the "poetic." It's like the difference between "musical" as a description of a system of sounds which exist in some calculated tonal relation to each other (or whatever terms an expert would use--I don't know anything about musicology) and "musical" as a qualitative assessment of a given composition ("that piece is very musical and this other one isn't"). So "apples on the sofa" might be poetic in ways that are largely irrelevant to the Jakobsonian account of poetics which privileges the reduplicated phonemes of "fruit on the futon," but those ways might not be irrelevant to the reasons "fruit on the futon" could be considered poetic when "fruit" means "homosexual." In the latter case, a whole range of affective considerations come into play that determine whether we think it is poetic, just as any number of private connotations, likes, dislikes, etc. might come into play when we read or hear "apples on the sofa." Does it make sense to talk about one sphere of the poetic that is "objective" (for example, we can all agree that the repeated sounds of "fruit on the futon" are technically "poetic" in that they are connected in such a way as to call attention to phonetic qualities of the phrase rather than its referential content, but this doesn't have anything to do with whether we think it is good poetry; on the other hand, to ask whether we think "apples on the sofa" is "poetic" is to appeal to a wholly different aesthetic definition--it really amounts to asking, "does this phrase move you in any way?" or "does this phrase sound like something that belongs in a poem"? And this brings us back to square one.

Can we even venture to suggest that a "good" poem should demonstrate some combined engagement with these "objective" and "subjective" accounts of what is poetic? But then, what would count as a "demonstration"?

Laura Carter said...


You're right: I'm writing out of my limited knowledge of ways of looking at poetry. I just took a New Critical form & theory class, & this kind of stuff is fresh on the brain. Apologies. It doesn't make as much sense as what you're saying. It's kind of fun every now & then, but, of course, is a limited exercise.

I'm using a lot of Thomas's ideas to try out my own approach, and my commitment. This one looked kind of cool.

Peace to you.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Laura, I was actually criticizing my own argument, not yours. I realized that what you said about liking the first phrase better was absolutely valid in a way that my claims couldn't account for, so it forced me to rethink everything I had said before. I think I was writing my comment at the same time you were writing your last two, so it looked like I was responding to them in a way that created a false impression of debate, perhaps?

Also, Thomas, I didn't acknowledge how useful I thought your last comments were about "the difficulty to find new beauty," and the greater work that goes into situating prosaic phrases among other phrases, etc.

Emily Lloyd said...

Thanks for this great discussion; I've really enjoyed reading it. I've posted a longish comment on my own blog here, if you're interested. (Like Laura, "apples on the sofa" immediately jumped out to me as the more "poetic"--although I realize neither may be--but for different reasons, which I go into there).

thanks & best,

Laura Carter said...

Yes, Kasey, that we were constructing posts at the same time is a difficulty!

Thank you.