Poetic language to me means to become strange and veer from normative use. As in prayer speaking in tongues because G-d both unspelled and unseen. Would be unseemly to actually speak Hir name. In Islamic tradition, of course, G-d hath no name: 99 of them OK but really the “hundredth” name—a metaphor not a name—is unspeakable, unknowable. “Allah” is not a word but a contraction: of “Al-ilah,” “ilah” meaning only “god” (lowercase), or pedantically, “something one worships.” Usually when I type “worship” out of habit my fingers type instead “workshop.” In both a session of “worship” and a session in the “workshop” a thing gets made, not revealed but made.
So to the spasmed light-licked fractured sentences or phrases that would make a poetic line: collection of lines with musical or ideational intent means a “poem,” a text or textile—the way threads woven given you something to wear or cover yourselves with. But the poem as a text to me is intentional or not, as opposed to prose, which requires intention and even if the author does not intend such intention will itself reveal.
American language has suffered the same way the American body has—by our compulsion towards empire, co-opting and colonizing and suppressing and murdering on a grand and global scale. We can hardly say anything or move anymore without cutting ourselves to the bone. We move toward strangeness and wildness in our expression not so much as a political gesture (for most) but as a way of finding a zone free of commercialism and untainted by political and military institutions. But sometimes it seems that all we have is information. As Kenneth Goldsmith writes of the new trend and tendency toward repurposing language, “Far from this ‘uncreative literature’ being a nihilistic, begrudging acceptance—or even an outright rejection—of a presumed ‘technological enslavement,’ it is a writing imbued with celebration, its eye ablaze with enthusiasm for the future…” (5). Is that really the case? A future obsessed with mere rehashing and quoting and putting work in new context? Goldsmith points out that this is how literature has always built itself—by ransacking its own historical archives. He may be correct, but it feels like a conservative point of view to me in light of the knowledge that still lies unearthed in the body’s stores.
And I’m not sure I want his “spectacle of the mundane,” anyhow. Though as he points out, this writing is not without “emotion”: “far from being coercive or persuasive, this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention.” Maybe I could buy that.
At any rate, I have a hard time reconciling any “idea” about writing with what and how I write because the task itself is a dreadful one. I sit in the wind or stunned somehow in the afternoon and write some sentences on a piece of paper, which more often than not I will lose. Is writing loss? If there is no word for G-d, there’s none for anything I am sometimes afraid.
No one hears in the dark, no audience. No wish for wonder, no god to answer your prayer, your pot breaks itself under hands on the wheel. But the “lyric” mode for me is the snake that sings through me, from whom I will accept any apple. Because it depends on strings. Music and sound vibrations are the foundational essence of the extant universe—it might be an aesthetic point of view but it also happens to be a statement about the physical make-up of the universe as we now understand it.
So rather than either the concept or “revelation”—some angel who whispers in your ear, Mister William Blank—or finding and manipulating data as Goldsmith or others do—maybe you just have to listen hard. The first thing you ought to hear is what’s closest: heartbeat and breath. In discussing the way blind people listen, Stephen Kuusisto uses the term “creative listening.” He explains that “Blind people are not casual eavesdroppers. We have method. As things happen around us we reinvent what we hear like courtroom artists who sketch as fast as they can.” He refers to his perceptions as both “clear and improbable”: “Even when I listen to Manhattan traffic I’m drawing my own pictures of New York—the streets are crowded with Russian ghosts and wheels that have broken loose from their carriages” (ix).
Pythagoras knew it all along, knew that one must tune oneself to external resonances, that there existed mathematical equations that could map the mysterious dimensions of creation. For him distances between distant planetary bodies in the sky were related to the tones in between notes on a musical scale. Such weaving together of matter in the physical universe is the province of poetry. Imagine Jorie Graham in her poem “Steering Wheel,” her hands on the steering wheel, looking in the rearview mirror in order to back out of the driveway. Leaves rise up in a swirl of wind, a hat blows down the street. A quote on Oppen springs to mind. It all comes together or does it really in “the part of the law which is the world’s waiting/and the part of the law whch is my waiting,/and then the part which is my impatience—now; now?”
In her early book The End of Beauty, Graham is skeptical of our ability to live without “being seen” by the outside. She wonders of Adam and Eve, after being abandoned, “who will they be, dear god, and what?” (3). Yet in her later book Swarm she comes to know of God, “In His dance the people do not move” (12). We become fixed in place, undeveloping, when we rely too much either on our history or our preconception. Swarm is full, rather, of imperatives and open-ended imperatives at that: “Explain asks to be followed/Explain remains to be seen” (5).
And so, like Pythagoras with his math and music (and perhaps not coincidentally the vow of veganism that all members of his learning community had to make), we fall back on careful observation not just of our own bodies but its relationships to all other bodies and functions in the universe—those very close (the food we put in our bodies) and very far away (galaxies and cosmic phenomena). As Goldsmith points out, “The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible… the act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story of our mother’s cancer operation” (9).
Interesting or ironic or both that Goldsmith’s metaphor for the most revealing of personal subjects for poetry is the illness of one’s mother. I’ll refrain from too facile a discussion of either eco-disaster or existential angst at alienation from the abandoning God. Instead let me choose the third prong—our organic bodies, weak and mortal (how dare they die?), now in the very process of being subsumed and trumped by technological machinery that can “live,” they are so much more capable than we are in their sensory perceptions and their ability to intake, process, manage and distribute information.
We do one thing only that machines don’t: breathe. In that experience (and its metaphorical extensions) we actually physically interface with the matter of the universe. Maybe it is true that no god exists in the dark, that there is no audience for prayer. But another human could suffice, and not through a machine but a voice in strings into an ear a box. A body is an instrument and it has registers yet untested. “You are inside me,” says Graham, “as history./We exist” (105).
Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing. Columbia University Press. 2011.
Graham, The End of Beauty. Ecco Press. 1987.
Graham, Materialism. Ecco Press. 1993.
Graham, Swarm. Ecco Press. 2000.
Kuusisto, Eavesdropping. Norton. 2006.
Note: This essay is forthcoming in Among Margins, an anthology on aesthetics due out from Ricochet Editions in 2016.