Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Broken Lamp Switch Poems

In a long, meticulous and often very funny essay, Matthew Buckley Smith biopsies the reasons for the "perenniality of nonsense" plaguing contemporary poetry. In the following excerpt, we pick up the story after Smith has tried, unsuccessfully, to decode a poem by John Ashbery.
Over these eighteen lines, we have tried to follow the poem grammatically, descriptively, narratively, thematically, and emotionally, and in each case, we’ve found ourselves only partially equipped. After a certain place in the stream, the rocks get too far apart for us to keep our shoes dry. And falling in might offer its own pleasure, assuming the stream is a stream of water. But not only can we not imagine a particular speaker choosing to say these things out loud, we can’t even deduce from these lines any central mind that might choose to put them in a poem. This is not to say we don’t enjoy them. It’s not to say that they can’t be opportunities to reflect upon our own lives. And it’s certainly not to say that we aren’t challenged by the brokenness of the language to examine the parts and functions of language itself. We don’t bother to think about how the lamp switch works until it breaks and we have to fix it. Maybe nonsensical syntax serves the same end. Maybe Ashbery has generously given us a broken lamp switch. “So much going on here,” one’s inner workshop leader wants to say, “a lot of really fresh language,” and, “We’ve only just scratched the surface.” In other words: There must be a lot going on here, because I don’t understand a word of it, but some of the diction at least is unexpected, though God knows what it means, and anyway I don’t want to be the only one in the room who missed the brilliant political allegory, so I’ll just say we’ve only scratched the surface.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

In the same vein, I recently read the following in the collection of Diana Athill's letters called INSTEAD OF A BOOK. She's explaining why she is, as she puts it, "a bad reader of poetry": "If something which has to be expressed can only be put on paper to the satisfaction of the expresser in what amounts to code, I am prepared to take other people's word for it that it is beautiful but I don't want to read it."