Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Denken durch Dichtung

"At times when we believe we are studying something, we are only being receptive to a kind of day-dreaming."
                        —Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I used to be a much more unconscious writer. Only my ear, tuned inward to the thousands of books I'd uncritically absorbed, guided what I wrote. I did very little thinking about my writing or what I've learned to call "my poetics." Asked the meaning of a poem I'd shrug and say, "Hey, I just work here." A number of undertheorized notions helped to determine the decisions I made while writing. Rhyme was good but internal rhyme was better. Couplets are more beautiful than quatrains. A poem exists to unfold one or more striking images. Banish cliches. Syntax should be regular unless a linebreak or rhyme demands otherwise. "Prose poetry" makes no sense. The poem should conclude with an epiphany, a reversal, or else dovetail neatly into the beginning. All poems are love poems—or to put it another way, praise is more challenging than negativity. A poem should be beautiful. Poetry = beauty.

The critical attitude which led me to reject these doxa came gradually to me as I began my first grapplings with literary theory (Derrida, Foucault, Said, Nietzsche), and accelerated once I began reading poets working outside the narrow Levine-Hugo-Wright axis I'd defined as "contemporary poetry" (Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, C.D. Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido). I was 27 years old when this process began, so I'd already been writing for a while: poems, plays, screenplays, my Romeo & Juliet vs. Queen novel. So these notions, that I'd gathered who knows where—from reading and re-reading the third edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry?— were not quickly or easily dislodged. Even now they remain as the deep background which I write against, or toward almost helplessly. Couplets are more beautiful. Of course, "beauty" is now a suspect category and the role of negativity within the most authentic poem of priase is much clearer to me. Probably my sense of being a more critically reflective writer is tied to my growing interest in syntax as the engine of language estranged from communication (which is poetry in one direction and jargon in the other). I'm re-inventing the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E wheel in some ways, of course, and struggling against the fact of my belatedness as each member of a rising generation must do. One must figure these things out for oneself—at least I must. I can't and couldn't be told. Still, I hope my consciousness of syntax and the dialectical knot of logopoeia that it provides access to will save my students a little bit of time. And I mustn't overestimate that critical consciousness I've acquired. "Maturity" always dates itself six months down the line.

Bachelard: "When we are lecturing, we become animated by the joy of teaching and, at times, our words think for us. But to write a book requires really serious reflection."

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