Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Reading the Jakobson essay fundamental to Timothy Morton's theory of ambient poetics, I come across this sentence: "Only in poetry with its regular reiteration of equivalent units is the time of the speech flow experienced, as it is—to cite another semiotic pattern—with musical time" (italics mine). This made me realize a fundamental difference between poetry and prose: when reading prose, even highly enjoyable prose with a sufficiency of verbal flourishes (as is the case with Stephenson's Baroque Cycle—I'm almost done with volume 2), I don't experience time in the writing—in fact, one of the primary pleasures of good prose fiction is the disappearance of time, the experience of looking up an hour or two after one has started and noticing the light has changed. The prodigious length of many popular fiction books (certainly Stephenson but J.K. Rowling also comes to mind) is part of their attraction: so many hours will be disappeared. With poetry, even poetry that's not in meter (but is still as Pound says "compose[d] in the sequence of musical phrase") we experience the time it takes to hear the words and repeated sounds. I suspect one of the reasons most people say that they don't "get" poetry is that they haven't learned to read in this listening way, haven't been taught the pleasure of reading in time but only know the vivid negative pleasure of reading out of time. Poetry requires more patience than prose: it literally requires that the reader make time for it, even if it's just thirty seconds on the subway.

This realization is useful to me in part because it explains my impatience with verse narrative: the experiences of time and timelessness produced respectively by the two forms are at cross-purposes. A poetry that causes time to disappear (a version of transparency, what Charles Bernstein calls the artifice of absorption) seems like anti-poetry to me. I've sometimes made a fetish out of difficulty, but difficulty is not the point: the point is that the poem has something in or about it that makes me experience the time of reading more vividly. Musicality and wordplay are the most obvious and pleasurable means of producing this vividness, but allusion and ideation (logopoeia) are also effective. Image-production is the poetic mode most readily assimilated by narration/timeless reading; that's why I've gone over the course of my short career from being highly enamored with images and imagisms toward a more suspicious stance.

Bottom line: I don't want poetry to be prose. And yet I often want prose to be poetry: what can this possibly mean? Stay tuned.

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