Twanging the Plumbline

As noted in a couple of previous posts, I have been participating in a discussion of poetics initiated by Henry Gould at a new blog, The Plumbline School, cross-posting a few of my comments here as well when they seemed detachable from their Plumbline context. There are, at last count, four participants in the project, which has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which has been undergoing a few modifications, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)

The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he’s reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called “School of Quietude” and the so called “Post Avant.”  I’m already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson’s ecology as a starting point. On of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I’ve said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry – our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.

Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that’s how I read — and continue to read — the intentions of the Plumbline. If there are poets out there who would like to join the conversation, email me or follow the How to Join link at the Plumbline blog.

Hippies, Fascists, and a State of Play

Years ago, walking across a beautiful wooded college campus in the Northwest, I had a conversation with a friend about Yeats’ notions of will and imagination. My friend suggested that imagination was a middle term and that will represented one extreme, which left us missing a term. (This was long enough ago that one might make structuralist arguments, not post-structuralist ones!) We came up with a sort of jokey formulation: will we represented in our system as a “fascist” for whom control was paramount and the opposite of will as a “hippie,” for whom any control was anathema. In the middle, we decided, there was playfulness–what Yeats called “imagination.”

The plumbline, even when it is perfectly still, only does its job because it is free to move; conversely, it is constrained by the laws of physics to come to rest over a point of equilibrium, drawing a line straight through the center of the earth. In a physical or mechanical system, we say there is “play” if there is a bit of slack or looseness, enough to allow some unpredictable motion without becoming completely random; if there is no play in the system, it locks up. So this is just one more metaphor for the middle way, but a useful one for me. At my best, such an approach governs my approach to daily life, as well as to poetry. The state of play is akin to what a Buddhist might simply call being awake.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.

Dream, Prayer, Chart

I’m still getting my bearings in this discussion so I’m going to indulge in just a bit more terminological meandering before I get down to looking at some actual poems.

In Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form, there is an otherwise unremarkable essay on using Freud as a guide to interpreting poetry, in which Burke deploys three terms, each naming an aspect of a poetic text on which the critic might want to focus. By implication, it’s possible to suggest that different poets might display more interest in one or another of these aspects, or modes.

Burke writes that the critic can look at the dream, the prayer, and the chart aspects of any particular poem. Dream corresponds roughly to the Freudian unconscious presented more or less raw. In my earlier discussion of amateur and professional poets, the amateurs would exhibit a predominance of dream discourse: self-expression. In Burke’s telling, prayer stands for the desire to communicate and brings in technique: rhetoric, rhyme, meter, all the canons of “professionalism” I was talking about earlier. In prayer, then, the poet turns toward the audience. Chart is the term Burke develops the least in this system and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I had assumed, based on my previous reading of this essay (years ago), that the chart aspect of the poem embodied the reality-testing function, that it aspired to describe states of affairs; but going back to the essay yesterday, it appears that Burke may have something more linguistic in mind: “As to the poem as chart: the Freudian emphasis upon the pun brings it about that something can only be in so far as it is something else. But aside from ambiguities, there is also a statement’s value as being exactly what it is. Perhaps we would best indicate what we mean by speaking of the poem as char if we called it the poet’s contribution to an informal dictionary. Burke goes on to describe what has been variously called by others the poet’s personal “mythmaking,” or perhaps even the poet’s “voice.” It ammounts to the creation of an idiosyncratic constellation of meanings more or less unique to a particular poet–his or her “vision” of the world, if you will.

In writing this up just now I began to wonder whether Burke’s terms can be mapped onto Seth Abramson’s pragmatic, syntactic, and cognitive-symantic types of poetry. On second thought, I’m not sure that the exercise would lead anywhere productive.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.

Peter Rennick has a New Blog

Frequent Sharp Sand commenter Peter Rennick has a new blog that looks to be composed entirely of his wonderful brief poems — the sort he posts here in comments. Given Peter’s sensibility, it’s lovely that he debuts Valentine’s Day. Make a note.

Professionals & Amateurs

I participated in a reading yesterday at the Brush Art Gallery at SLU. There were about ten of us reading, a fairly even mix of professional* poets and amateurs. That terminology is highly problematic along several axes of meaning, I think, but I’m not sure how else to characterize the obvious differences between those who have mastered certain techniques and attitudes and those for whom poetry is not a matter of mastery but of expression.


That distinction between poetry as a set of practices and poetry as a mode of (self) expression seems basic to me and it raises an underlying question about value and pujrpose. The professional poet implicitly makes a claim about the value of the work based on his / her mastery of the canons of poetry; the amateur poet, on the other hand, makes a claim for the value of his / her poetry based on the degree to which it satisfies the human need for self-expression. The reading I participated in yesterday embodied this pair of categories with hardly any overlap. Now, it would be easy — as with all binary pairings — to put a positive valance on one side and a negative valance on the other, but I don’t want to do that.

Speaking from the professional side, I want to honor the impulse to express oneself in poetry, however one understands poetry; at the same time, my sense that the poem must always exceed the poet’s personal situation runs counter to the self-expressive mode. It’s not that my own poems don’t express something about my “self,” whatever that may be in this contingent, post-modern world, but the poem must ultimately float free from the self and take its place as an autonomous cultural object.

What is the nature of that object? It is not the independent, shimmering, well-wrought urn of the New Critics, certainly; it is embedded in history and is no doubt a captive of an evolving cultural matrix that at least partly animates it. An organism in an environment? Perhaps that’s as good a metaphor as any for describing the relationship of one of my poems to the world.

There was an audience in the room yesterday, each of whom came to hear a poetry reading. Matthew Schmeer has raised the issue of what the audience gets from contemporary poetry. Some (fairly large) percentage of the audience were themselves poets, either on the program or not, but there were also ordinary readers of / listeners to poetry. And what about those “ordinary” readers? What’s in it for them? The answer depends, I think, on how they conceive poetry: If they think of poetry as self-sepression, they want one sort of thing and are liklely to be disappointed by poetry that failes to deliver self-revelation; if they are interested in poetry as an expression of particular cultural values produiced according to certain aesthetic assumptions, the auditors / readers will want another sort of thing, more like what the “professionals” produce.

*Isn’t the act of writing a (modern) poem, by virtue of its inevitable skepticism about its own language, the antithesis of professionalism, which is about the acceptance and deployment of power?

Cross-posted to The Plumbline School: please comment there.

On Dropping Ampersands from My Poems

Over the last decade or so I have used the ampersand instead of the word and in my poems; I think it began as a tribute to Larry Levis. I had recently been thinking of going back to using and, so today when the editors at the Beloit Poetry Journal accepted three poems and suggested using the conjunction rather than the symbol, I not only agreed, but have decided to drop the practice henceforth as an affectation.