Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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=== It is indeed true there is no "universal" mode of poetry--no "normal poetry" from which anything else is an aberration--===

Yes but it's sad that in our freedom from dictates of any sort, we moderns have dispensed with the most essential quality of good poetry -- musicality, even if that can be so subtle as to be detectable only as a sort of delicious 'aftertaste'.

This poet being discussed elsewhere ... ... seems a perfectly lovely man, but I fail to see how A Trace of Wings is a poem -- lacking as it does the faintest trace of euphony. It's just clever and elegant, and only admirable in the way a crossword puzzle can be. Since everyone else on that thread is sure that they have read a poem, there seems no point in joining the discussion at all.

=== and it is also true that much conventional poetry, with its "normative syntax, classical metrics, and a deliberately recessive linebreak" requires "at the level of the reader's experience" only "passivity." ===

Yes, but isn't this true of all art in which the artist is merely a competent technician and has nothing much to say, and says what s/he can in the most predictable fashion?

Dan Green

"we moderns have dispensed with the most essential quality of good poetry -- musicality"

But what makes this "most essential"--apart from its being the quality you prefer?


Now that there is no 'universal mode' ... no norms ... we are each free to set our own criteria. Logical enough. wouldn't you say?

Now I wish that someone -- if not you -- would tell me why A Trace of Wings is a poem rather than just a mildly entertaining arrangement of words.

Frances Madeson

“ could also imagine some readers making the connection between the two kinds of challenges that Silliman would like, pursuing the extra-literary implications of the strategy after engaging with it on a purely aesthetic level... “

Yes, but by what process does the reader get conducted to the place where making the connection is possible?

Mining your ouevre, Daniel—the dissertation on metafiction (which itself slyly includes a smidge of parataxis in the introductory chapter, at least I had to leap on occasion); the other critical papers and journal articles, especially those emphasizing the value of the comic and Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque in art; the purposeful fiction that in some instances deploys parataxis even while it explores themes of disjunction, dislocation and disassociation; as well as the disciplined posts on TRE and comments on other weblogs—the provisional answer seems to be that the reader's own recognition of nothing less than his or her personal existential displacement is the necessary filament.

Jonathan  Mayhew

"Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened"

That's a beautiful line. Why does that lack musicality? It might not be the exact kind of musicality that you prefer, but it's clearly inflected by Hopkins' approach to language and prosody:: there is an effort made to organize the sounds. Three phrases of two accents each; within each two-beat phrase, a parallel syllabic structure. It sure sounds musical to me and (I'm sure) others who admire this poet. Now you might not be convinced by that, but you can't speak for all (or even most) readers of poetry.


=== but you can't speak for all (or even most) readers of poetry. ===

Didn't claim to; never would. : ) See 8.28 pm 23 August.

The 'Arctic flyer' line is an example of exqusite compression. Music? Not to this ear ... not even with the best will in the world.

Dan Green


You are of course entitled to your preference for a certain kind of musicality, but it seems rather limiting to insist that all poems must have that musicality. If what you really want is "music," in the traditional, rhythm-heavy sense of the term, perhaps you should turn instead to, well, music. Poetry is after all a verbal art, and it ought to be the arrangement of words, which could include a music-like arrangement, but might encompass other strategies as well, that is finally what matters. Jonathan's description of Morgan's strategy seems perfectly cogent to me.

Jonathan  Mayhew

We don't typically say a bad film is "not a movie." I'm curious to know why anyone would need to be convinced a poem is actually a poem--especially when it does contain "exquisite compression" and an "entertaining arrangement of words." Because there is something you don't like about its prosody, we have to convince you that it is a poem? If there is nothing in your experience that is normative in your experience with a claim on anyone else, I don't see the point you're trying to make, other than a relatively trivial point about the limitations of your own taste.

Gerard Stocker

"Snow Bunting" should be part of the line so you get the repeated "o" in "snow" and "ghost". The "ar" in "Arctic," "blizzard" and "hardened" all play off of each other nicely in both sound and sense, especially as the "ar" in blizzard wd be more heavily accented by a Scotsman. Then there are the sonic connections with all the lines around it (ie the sibilant in "snow" rolling off of the "whisk" from the line before, the accented "b" of blizzard-hardened leading leading you right into the accented "B" of Basil Bunting, usw.) Nope, no euphony there, that's fer sure.


Thank you! Answers that will make fine grist for my mill ... some day. ;)

=== I'm curious to know why anyone would need to be convinced a poem is actually a poem ===

You mean, you want to know why someone who sees only a careful arrangement of words wants to know how others detect a poem in them . . . Not questioning your right to see it as a poem, just asking. Not being clever-clever either, just genuinely baffled. . . . And no, I'm not so simple-minded as to think you need rhyming. The powerful rhythms in Shakespearean blank verse and in innumerable passages in the KJV of the good book are instantly recognisable as poetic.

As for the relationship to music, I've explained that here: Poetry is the Sister of Music, not Science or Mathematics.

=== but it seems rather limiting to insist that all poems must have that musicality. ===

... as I keep saying, Dan, as there are no longer any rules, I'm not insisting -- just rather pathetically looking, I suppose, for others mourning as I do the loss of the musical _element_.


=== Jonathan's description of Morgan's strategy seems perfectly cogent to me. ===

Would submit that while a poem might have its strategic elements, strategy byt itself -- however coherent -- is not enough to make a poem.

Dan Green

But what is musicality if not a strategy? I begin to think your request that someone tell you "why A Trace of Wings is a poem" was a bit disingenuous. If a poem is only a poem by some metaphysical measure you aren't willing to articulate, I don't think anyone's going to be able to provide an answer you'll accept.

Gerard Stocker

The question is no longer whether the poem is musical; plenty of evidence adduced for that: ignored. The question is what do you regard as "musical," wordnerd7? As it's clearly something more ineffable than the likes of the rest of us can parse, might you do us the honour of parsing it for us?



Not clear on the answer you give, but the question you pose is one that has occurred to me also from reading this website.... Perhaps to state it otherwise (or perhaps to state only a related question) -- What are the extra-literary implications of the reading experience that is properly undertaken?


There ... you've said it yourself, Gerard. Music is indeed ineffable. People who think they can 'parse' it are like the wretches who imagined that they could hack apart a certain well-known goose and steal its knack for popping out golden eggs.

=== ...[M]usic is supremely meaningful, but its meanings remain undefinable and refuse either paraphrase or translation. Like the tautological 'I am' out of the Burning Bush, it is what it is. Many have sought to define its indispensability, its overwhelming potency. . . [F]or Levi-Strauss melody is 'the supreme mystery.' For innumerable men and women in every historical epoch and community musical experience is, in ways which they cannot diagnose or verbalise, 'transcendent.' ... With uttermost yet inexplicable obviousness, music initiates, communicates truths, emotions, imaginings, ... Its light and shadow, its agencies of possession ... are 'on the other side' of analytic and discursive reason.' ===

If George Steiner thought it reducible to 'a strategy,' Dan, I somehow doubt that he'd have gone to the trouble of weaving together all those references.

Not being disingenuous at all, I'll guarantee. I just saw a large number of people sure that there was a poem where I saw none. As David Brooks said the other day,

=== We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group. ===

Behaving like that has always puzzled me.

Dan Green


If you're talking about the "meaning" of music or poetry, then you are correct to use words such as "undefinable" or ambiguous or even "ineffable." But this debate isn't about meaning, it's about the material, describable features of a poem. (Or at least that's what I thought you were asking for when you asked someone to explain "why this is a poem.") You've been given quite cogent descriptions of what makes the Morgan poem a poem, but now you want to switch back to metaphysics and meaning. If it's impossible to "parse" poetry in the descriptive sense, then literary criticism itself is impossible. I, for one, don't believe that. I hope you don't, either. It remains difficult for me to understand why you can't "see" the poem that palpably exists.


=== It remains difficult for me to understand why you can't "see" the poem ... ===

I meant to return and correct that to read 'cannot _hear_'.

Sounds -- sublime, rhythmic arrangements of sounds -- are of the essence of all the world's great poetry.

Or, better yet … I hardly need to tell you who suggested so surpassingly well that sound is half of what makes a poem, and …

=== [t]hen there is this wildness whereof it is spoken. Granted again that it has an equal claim with sound to being a poem's better half. If it is a wild tune, it is a Poem. Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. ===

A description of auditory architecture can be no more than that. It cannot nail down or explain that ‘wildness’ in a collection of words that we instantly hear as a poem. . . And if it was never there in the first place, in some meticulous arrangement of words -- ? That, plainly, is the other half of what’s missing from the Morgan poem – at least for me -- and isn’t he a ‘modern abstractionist’? (I don’t know his oeuvre, so that isn’t a rhetorical question.)

Perhaps literary scholarship is better directed elsewhere – towards, for instance, authentication of texts, and tracing lineage? As the great man says – and in the link to my blog posted above, Cervantes is shown making virtually the same point roughly three and a half centuries earlier – criticism that’s notably perceptive and useful would call for leaping an impossible gap:

=== Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art. ===


Correction ... that should have been, not 'as the great man says,' ... but implies ...

Dan Green


You have every right to think that Morgan's poem isn't a very good poem. For you it lacks these things that for you make a poem good--sublimity, wildness, etc. But nothing you've said explains to me why you don't want to call it what it plainly is--a poem, albeit one with an "auditory architecure" you don't like.


Ah, but as anyone who has read this thread can see, it is I who came here with a question and have had to go away unsatisfied. Even though you, Dan, are the most gracious blog host. Never mind, perhaps I'll pop in here some day and find an answer when I least expect one. In the meanwhile,


Between what I see and what I say,
Between what I say and what I keep silent,
Between what I keep silent and what I dream,
Between what I dream and what I forget:
It slips
between yes and no,
what I keep silent,
keeps silent
what I say,
what I forget.
It is not speech:
it is an act.
It is an act
of speech.
speaks and listens:
it is real.
And as soon as I say
it is real,
it vanishes.
Is it then more real?


Tangible idea,
comes and goes
between what is
and what is not.
It weaves
and unweaves reflections.
scatters eyes on a page,
scatters words on our eyes.
Eyes speak,
words look,
looks think.
To hear
what we say,
the body of an idea.
Eyes close,
the words open.

— Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

Matthew Merlino

Am I the only one here who finds Silliman's notions absurd? First off, let's be clear about what a signifier is: it is the physical marks on the page or the physical sounds uttered.

The New Sentence does no better job than, say, a line of blank verse in making the reader attend to the signifier.

The parataxis of the New Sentence could be said to make the reader aware of the *process* of meaning-making. But that's far different from the signifier or "language itself," which of course is more than meaning-making. I find Language Poetry to be the most referential. At every moment, the reader of New Sentences is asking, "What out in the world links this sentence to that sentence? What historical or social or artistic contingency connects the fragments?" And when there is no connection, the reader is left holding two fragments side by side, like a montage, which itself generates a new signified.

Metafiction is *not* about the signifier. Metafiction is highly referential: it refers at all points to the process of story-telling. Story-telling is not a brute physical sound or shape on the page, which is all the signifier is.

Dan Green

"Metafiction is highly referential: it refers at all points to the process of story-telling. . .not a brute physical sound or shape on the page"

I don't see how the two things can be separated. Metafiction, at least in its "classic" phase (Barth, Coover, etc.), wants to discourage "transparent" reading,: reading through the words to the "story."It wants to remind us that fiction is artifice. Sometimes it does alert us to the storytelling process, but because this is *verbal* storytelling, that must entail the storyteller's deployment of language. In some versions of metafiction, say Sukenick and Federman, we are very concretely made aware of the "brute. . .shape on the page."

Matthew Merlino

Dan, metafiction refers to the IDEA of storytelling, which is a signified. The process of storytelling cannot be in the signifiers, because signifiers are nothing more than brute physical shapes and sounds. Alliteration and rhyme make us conscious of the signifier; Kamau Brathwaite's experiments with font make us conscious of the signifier. But a story about telling stories is ABOUT telling stories -- "telling stories" is the concept the language refers to.

The sentence "I am telling you a story right now" is a metafictional statement, but it's not making me conscious of "t" sounds or the shape of the letter "t." It is refering, conceptually, to the situation in which some "I" is telling some "you" a story.

And reminding us of the artifice of fiction is itself an idea, a concept, a signified. It's the same as a story about love or death or marriage or sex. A story about stories isn't about the brute physical sounds and shapes of the words.

To be made aware only of the signifier is to lose any meaning at all. It is to strip language of its nature as language and return it to sound and shape. Rhyme and sound and font play work WITH the signifieds to add to the mood, tone, affect, and themes of the writing. Literature that is only about sound is pure nonsense: scat singing, say. It approaches music at its best; at its worst it is gibberish.

Dan Green

Metafiction goes well beyond stories that are simply stories about the idea of storytelling. You can restrict your definition to stories like this if you want, but I don't. (I wrote a dissertation on the topic, btw, so I'm not talking out of my ass.) You could assert a writer like Federman not to be a metafictionist as well, but I can assure you that Take It or Leave It is both a story about storytelling and a text that is about the brute physical shapes of the arrangement of words. (Check it out for an experiment with fonts.) "Sound" isn't the only way for a text to reduce itself to its signifiers.

Matthew Merlino

But Dan, if Federman's experiments with fonts contribute to the meanings of his fictions, then they are no longer brute signifiers. Concrete poetry brings new attention to signifiers, but those signifiers become a new type of signifier with a new signified (they go from being words to being pictures).

It's like an illuminated manuscript. The lettering brings a lot of attention to the physical act of making letters, but such ornamental design is an artistic signifier, a visual signifier of a new signified, usually one that contributes, along with the language, to the meanings of the work of art.

I don't think there's any non-referential language. If it's not referential, it's not language. By definition. (And by referential, I mean to concepts as well as the real world.) Non-referential language would be meaningless sound effects and doodles -- that is to say, it wouldn't be language. But once there's meaning, those sounds and doodles are signifiers with signifieds.

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