Friday, 19 November 2010

The Poetry Circus

In a secondhand bookshop I found "The Poetry Circus", by Stanton A. Coblentz, (Hawthorn: New York, 1967). It is "a frontal attack on the sloppiness, pretence, and just plain sensationalism that prevails in much of contemporary poetry". In one section ("How to write a Modern Poem") he shows how an embarrassingly bland text (e.g. "Every nation, isolated in its own house, seeks to wall out all other nations") might be modernised by substitutions leading to something that "may be a little vague and somewhat hard to figure out, perhaps even contradictory, but no one will say it is trite" (e.g. "Every nation/in the isolation of its own libido/seeks to cro-Magnonize all others with the psychology of the alter ego"). Of course no-one consciously proceeds through these stages, but poem explanations sometimes perform the reverse process. Are they attempts to normalize, to remove from the work all that's odd to us, all that's novel? Do they dumb down? Whatever the explanations do, they don't always explain what's lost in this process. The paraphrase may even be an improvement on a confusing draft.

Coblenz's battle against the Emperors' New Clothes failed to change the course of US poetry, but I share some of his doubts about the purposes of difficulty. There are several reasons why a vague or difficult poem might be more effective than a direct one -

  • In "Nature", 17th Mar 2005 they reported that blurry images can have more emotional impact than clear ones - the emotion-modules in the brain don't need detail; the detail activates other activity that might distract.
  • A "Rorschach" poem can give a reader more scope for imagination.
  • Exploring a difficult poem can be a reward in itself.

- but vagueness and difficulty can of course be evasion, bluffing, or a sign of more general communication difficulties.

I read the "Tears in the Fence" magazine to encounter types of work I don't often read, work that challenges and stretches me. Both poets and critics are given space to make their case. Even so, I sometimes feel that I'm encountering crop circles rather than new life-forms. Here's the start of "Love Poem 2" by Lisa Mansell

slick in the lactic stale of sextet
                                        they crabform in their calculus
        and listen to the music that kilts and sucks their scarab-wracked skin
               tantric and crystal                a tryst
                                               rustic and cusp

oceans slip by denizens of noose
       and coil unctuous          vultured in love-letter-scrawl
                       as laval scions the deserting vulva
         aztec and volatile                        liquid

It's rich in sound effects - "slick in the lactic stale of sextet" has many 'S' and 'K' sounds that are repeated through the piece. Later, 'L' and 'V' sounds begin to dominate. Sound has its own meaning-making mechanisms. The dadaists wrote "sound poetry". Less extremely, Mallarmé and Basil Bunting foregrounded sound. I side with Eliot when he said "the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from its meaning". The balance between sound and "sense" can vary in poetry. In this piece several word-choices look strange if one merely considers their sense. Why "slick in the lactic stale of sextet" rather than "slick in the lactic staleness of sex"? What does line 2 mean? "calculus" might be something to do with bones or with calculation. What sort of "music" is being referred to? What is "kilts ... their skin?" (by the way, "unctuous" means oily or smarmy; "scions" means offspring). What does "deserting vulva" mean - that it's going dry? that it's making something else dry? that it's leaving? How do any of those interpretations connect with the rest of the line (presumably they do in some way, otherwise there'd be a line-break). The poem's grammatically parsable, but commas have been replaced by line-breaks. That doesn't fully explain the splattered layout though - why the inline spaces?

I like the sound of it - I can imagine people being seduced by the sonic constellations alone - but it might as well be in a foreign language for all the "sense" I can make of it. When writing a Rorschach poem it helps to retain some referential clues - partly to tantalize. But readers aren't to know whether there's a riddle to be solved, or how much work is expected. Here for instance "kilts" could suggest the swaying of seaweed, or maybe it's something to do with "kilter" (as in "out of kilter"). The lovers could be whales, "slick" could allude to "oil-slick". Perhaps vultures and scarabs are Aztec symbols (there must be some reason why "aztec" is there). There are other symbolic links too - crab, ocean, liquid; sex(tet), tantric, vulva; desert and ocean. The rest of the poem doesn't help me, though there is "their unbelief in binary rubs at the solent-soft of her love" which reminds me of the concocted examples of modernized poetry that Coblentz developed from a simple statement.

Formalist poems are sometimes accused of being rhyme-driven, with artificial inversions introduced merely to regularise the rhythm. Mainstream poems often have mundane settings into which some mystery is embedded (a "lift" in the final line, for example) with sound having a minor role. There are sonic forces driving this poem like an ambulance siren pushing mainstream meaning aside. Or alternatively one could say that the setting is sonic, generating effects (a field, if you wish) that isolated referential meanings expand into and modulate.

Rather than send in the clowns perhaps it's time to start dismantling the Big Top. Whose fun would it spoil? Would it throw the baby out with the bathwater? Does it risk the accusation of being right-wing, reactionary, nostalgic for "The Movement"? Even suggesting that one create a table of pros and cons for the special effects displayed in such poems risks being accused of over-rationalism, of workshoppery taken over by accountancy. The poet has a Ph.D and lectures in Creative Writing so I presume all my points have been taken into account. In the end all one can say is that the proportions of the ingredients don't suit me. Maybe there are also some ingredients that I'm oblivious to. It takes all sort to make a world and I'm sure this poem has its share of fans.


  1. It is interesting to see this piece laid out properly (as opposed to the snippet you included in your comment on my blog) but I still don’t get it. I don’t mind words pulling double-duty but I simply don’t know how to read this poem. I’m not saying there has to be a definitive answer – a poem is not an equation to be solved – but it should be possible to arrive at an answer that makes some sense. From your comments I see you have similar problems. There are lots of things that the words suggest but apart from sounding nice – and a lot of nonsense poetry sounds nice – I don’t get anything here; it’s frustrating. How do you read this poem? This is not me being facetious or sarcastic, it is a serious question. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with these words. All you’ve done is ask the kind of questions I would ask.

    Put any two words on a page and our brains will try to make sense out of them, will try to connect them in some way – we can’t help ourselves, we’re hard-wired to look for meaning in things be they inkblots or fluffy white clouds. Poems like this make me feel inadequate. I’m not a stupid person – far from it if you believe the test results – but I feel like a caveman who’s just been handed a mobile phone. Or, to be totally honest, like I’ve just been handed a hundred-piece jigsaw made up of one hundred pieces taken at random from one hundred separate jigsaws. Maybe I can force a few pieces together so that they look like they fit but ultimately the whole exercise is a futile one.

  2. I think the issue is partly knowing what there is to "get". If you look at a Mark Rothko painting expecting to see "something", you might in the end think it's a badly painted foggy sunset. If instead you engage with the piece on its own terms, you might be one of those who start crying in the presence of such work. I don't take tissues to art galleries, nor am I very musical. I zoom in on details, try to connect them together, zoom out again, try to connect detail to overview, try to connect together the things that can only be seen at a distance. It's a strategy that doesn't always work - I've issues rather than tissues.

  3. Good to meet you Litrefs. I'm here thorough the wonderful Jim Murdoch. I'm not a poet, though occasionally I've tried my hand at it. I feel safer with prose, but I do enjoy a good discussion on poetry.

    When I was a child I so wanted to be a poet, the sheer pleasure of the form stays with me. I can resonate with the poem you include here, but I'd have trouble wanting more meaning, or would I? Sometimes such poems are better heard than read.

    Good to meet you

  4. Good to meet you Litrefs - Hi. I'd have called the site Tim Love but I didn't want to be confused with the cook, the plastic surgeon, etc.

    I feel safer with prose, but I do enjoy a good discussion on poetry - Me too!

    Sometimes such poems are better heard than read - Yes. I'm happy with such poems (Dylan Thomas wrote some, I've written some (and written about the power of sound - see but as Jim hinted, there's a lack of reader-guides for such works. Sometimes people describe such pieces as "deep", "evocative", "resonant" as if they were wines.