Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Leap

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

In my intro to creative writing class this past Tuesday, a student asked a crucial question. Roughly paraphrased, she said something like, Okay, I see the value of paratactic and dissociative writing. But how can we learn to write that way?

I think maybe what she meant was, How do you know, when you break the rules, that you're doing it right?

I think of Dylan's, "to live outside the law, you must be honest."

And I think of the leap I ask my students to make from texts centered on the writer—writing for yourself, expression—to texts propelled toward a reader—direct presentation of the thing, machines made of words, construction, all that good Modernist stuff.

And these lines from Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tuuum:
We must destroy syntax by placing nouns at random as they are born. And:

We must abolish the adjective so that the naked noun can retain its essential color. And:

(GREEDY SALTY PURPLE FANTASTIC INEVITABLE SLOPING IMPONDERABLE FRA-GILE DANCING MAGNETIC) I will explain these words I mean the sky sea mountains are greedy salty purple etc. and that I am greedy salty purple etc. all that outside me as well as in me absolute totality simultaneity synthesis = the superiority of my poetry over all others stop
Marinetti was a Fascist, of course, like Pound. But at least it can be said of Marinetti that his work got less interesting the more Fascist he became.

The moment, the leap comes when you learn to materialize the signifier. When words are visible in their essential colors. Then even adverbs (which I ban) are okay, because they are no longer dead circuits but curious arcs of electricity that cause verbs to bristle differently, like a dog's fur stroked the wrong way.

How to teach this beside procedure.

I don't think much of Robert Bly these days, but I remember my mother's yellow yellowing copy of Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations that I took down from the shelf one day as a teenager and it did lead me deeper into what I mean. And he helped me to articulate why Stevens was my favorite poet.

Bly: "a poet who is leaping makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance."

I'm less interested in these days in psychic substances. My preferred term for the leap in modern poetry, parataxis, stays on the surface, leapfrogging unlike elements from a mix of materials social, psychic, mediated, gathered, scattered, and overheard. As Wilde said, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

It's difficult to keep students on the surface. Often I ask the question, What's the difference between poems and prose? I get various right answers: it's rhythmic, it's compressed, etc. I point at the page: Look at all that white space! Look at that ragged margin! Weird, right?

They agree with me that it's weird.

I show them all kinds of paratactic stuff. I ask them to write poems that repeat phrases, that braid associations, list poems. Today we'll try some Google-sculpting. They like it, they get it. They don't get it, they don't like it. I persevere.

I believe this is valuable for writers and for non-writers. Seeing what's in front of our noses. Ringing the coin on the table for its true note. Biting, like the book says, the error. I persevere.

I was born and raised into a sense of distance from language, a distance that bred affection and longing. Wordplay is literally my mother tongue. We amused each other endlessly with rare birds of speech.

Now I put that experience, that inheritance, into each semester, shoulder queerly to the wheel. I persevere.

One day I will give their adverbs back to them. Today, even.

Can you push someone into leaping. Can you pull.

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