Before I was writing a project about nonsense and modernism, I was in the early stages of a project that looked at interactions of poetry and prose, and the borderlines of poetry and prose, in modernism. Focal texts included William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America. The idea for the project had grown out of some earlier work on James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly on the episode generally referred to as “Sirens.”
Sirens begins with a two-page series of fragmentary sentences that proleptically cite language that appears later in the episode. In a seminar paper, I argued that given Sirens’ status as an episode associated with music, we should read it through the lens of the form of language most often associated with music, poetry. So the two-page “overture” becomes a free-verse poem, and the power of the episode’s language comes from literary techniques associated more often with poetry than with prose. So Joyce’s prose, as much as it is about music and indebted to music, engages with techniques analogous to those of poetry—enjambment, alliteration, rhyme, etc.
In modernism, I argued, willful poeticity began to encroach on prose even as free verse and prose poetry began to make poetry look more like prose. It became increasingly difficult to make confident assertions about the differences between poetry and prose as the twentieth century went on, a crisis that has arguably culminated in the further blurring of poetry and prose in conceptual writing, especially in works like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003), in which Goldsmith simply retypes an entire issue of the New York Times into book form that occasionally looks like poetry and occasionally looks like prose.
Poetry, then, begins less to resemble any specifically definable set of formal attributes than it does some vague quality of heightened literariness or heightened artistic sense in a work in words. Of course, the “literary” is as vexed a term as poetry is, and since the height of the theory revolution during the 1980s we’ve known that the literary is often defined as much by arbitrary class markers as it is by the inherent qualities of a work. Goldsmith work again troubles the distinction between literary language and normative language by taking the functional prose of the newspaper and re-presenting it as literature.
Of course, I may be better at pointing out instances where poets and critics have troubled the term poetry than I am at defining it. At the beginning of my project, though, as now, I believe that pat definitions of poetry modeled on the early nineteenth-century Romantic lyric still need troubling.
At the time I was beginning to formulate the first (eventually abandoned) version of the dissertation, Terry Eagleton had just come out with a book with the straightforward title, [How to Read a Poem](. In it, he defines a poem as “a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end” (25). While Eagleton’s willingness to offer such a concise definition is to his credit, each of the key terms of the definition collapses under scrutiny:
- fictional: What about Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, which builds poems from the words of Holocaust survivors, or Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, which uses reports of interviews with survivors of a mining-related lung disease? If we go to the contemporary poetry of what Marjorie Perloff terms Unoriginal Genius we find countless examples of reuse of the non-fictional in poetry-like writing. But one need not go directly to these examples, which might be painted as extreme—what about “Charge of the Light Brigade,”, largely undisputed as a “poem” but referring to a clearly non-fictional event, a British cavalry charge during the Crimean war?
- verbally: “Verbally inventive” is one place I’m largely sympathetic with Eagleton’s definition. But I would argue that as often as not poems are not merely verbally inventive but also visually and sonically inventive. Hugo Ball’s sound poems avoid words used before, for example, and Kurt Schwitters’s sound poems often go even further to include explicitly non-verbal sounds. Concrete Poetry similarly depends more on images than on words. So I’m inclined to call poetry a heightened form of language, but these are not mere exceptions that prove the rule but commonplace examples that prove the rule inadequate.
- moral statement: The one that makes me cringe the most, perhaps because it implies the reducibility of poetry to so many pat “morals.” Literary scholars have rejected such a model for a long time, at least since the New Criticism, in the midst of which Cleanth Brooks admonished scholars against the “heresy of paraphrase.” Many poets concern themselves little with morals. What of “My Last Duchess”? We’re surely supposed to be creeped out by the murderous speaker, but does that make the poem a “moral statement”? Is Browning’s goal in the poem really to convince us that it’s a bad idea to murder one’s wife? “Moral statement” is at the center of Eagleton’s definition, and of course he troubles it a bit in his book—but for me it’s so far off the mark that it shouldn’t be included in any sound definition of poetry.
- in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end: Since the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s been really hard to argue that prose poems shouldn’t count as poems—in modernism, start with Stein and Williams, but really, we could go to any number of examples, especially after modernism. Even more, though, I’m instinctively suspicious about the remark about author’s decisions as a student of Jerome McGann’s. A clear example of an editor’s decisions mattering almost as much as an author’s can be found in the example of Emily Dickinson, whose work was first edited—heavily—by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In Virginia Jackson’s excellent Dickinson’s Misery she points out, quite aptly, I think, that even the barest structure of lineation and the frame of “poetry” were imposed on Dickinson’s words when they were, for example, scrawled on envelopes much more haphazardly than the confident framing of lyric poetry might imply. So cracks begin to appear both in Eagleton’s assertion about poetry being defined by lines and his assertion that those line-endings are chosen by authors rather than editors.
Eagleton himself, of course, would acknowledge many of the faults I’ve pointed to here, and his book goes on to complicate this seemingly straightforward definition of poetry. The point is, though, that early in my nascent project about the borderlines of poetry and prose, I was getting into territory that involved sweeping claims about terms like “poetry,” “literature,” and “the literary.” I was trying to define my objects of study according to terms that are even more subject to qualification and redefinition than most, terms that I didn’t really believe could be defined in any responsible way.
I’d written dozens of pages about Gertrude Stein, especially about the critical discourse on Tender Buttons and on the heightened poetic language of Lectures in America (interesting, of course, because Stein chose poetic effect even in the midst of a genre invested in explanation). But I was exhausted, confused, and largely bored with what I was doing.
After I’d worked at the project for around a year, one of my advisors urged me to figure out what it is I loved about the books I actually love—and that suggestion took me down the path to a project I turned out to be much happier with, a project in which the key term was “nonsense” rather than “poetry” (though concerns of poetry remained very much alive in it). And I’ll begin explaining how I see nonsense differently than some others in my next post.
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