Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

“Accidental” Composition in Poetry

In Criticism, Poetry on November 22, 2004 at 3:53 am

Language is neither a wheel barrow nor a playground for theorists. It is not a sterile system nor common sense. It is the moment of transformation, from one thing into another, like the surface of a lake becoming mist, which floats away to tangle in the grass, turn to water, run down the blades, drain into the lake to become mist again, float into a cloud which grounds ashore on a mountaintop and turns into hard ice. Life is movement. Stop movement and life, the cell itself, dies. Language is the movement of meaning in the consciousness, therefore, the “life” of consciousness. Meaning, though ever-shifting, is ever there, so language is rigid and ephemeral, monumental and sliding, at the same time.

Roussel and Ashbery hinge things together on meaning, just not common denotative meaning. There’s a willingness to let the meaning form on non-intentional levels via rhyme, homonyms, puns. But, once done, meaning rises up from the surface of the poem’s lake into mist, breathed in by the reader. The meaning, that is, may not be authorial, but it always is.

These poems may not be “about” anything, but that does not mean they are not meaningful, that they do not “mean” anything. Part of meaning is the feeling of words crashing or meshing together, that ever-shifting feeling that means our clichéd perceptions of the world, our concepts, are dissolving and for a brief instance (C.S. Lewis’ “joy”) we can feel the raw authentic being of the world, our lives, the universe, of being itself, of which The Universe is merely one iteration. This is the alchemic, incantatory part of poetry. The most intentional, formally perfect, traditional, representational poem has it, in varying degrees. In fact fixed form’s demands act as linguistic generators in the same way as Laforgue’s homonyms and puns. They can create meaning in themselves as long as the author does not insist on the fiction of pure intent.

When writing formal poetry the writer has two options when his intention is at odds with the formal demands or internal insistence of a poem. The first is convention, to use those words and phrases with the rhyme and meter that fill the spot that come most readily to mind due to overexposure (poetic clichés, that which used to be elements of oral formulaic composition, kennings and so on; the difference being that they do not have power in the modern written context). The other option is to trust the poem itself, to yield, at least momentarily, to the currents of language within that poem, to release intent, to not be afraid of losing control. The more often the poet heaves the oars, has his share of successes and failures, the better judge he’ll become of when to let go, knowing he’ll be able to reassert control (if he chooses) by using linguistic elements in the poems as stars to steer by, picking up a thread, reorienting himself by relating some unexpected new element introduced into the poem through the intentionless process both to what came in the previous intentional process and as a path on which to drive the poem forward. Of course, the poet can let go completely, but that is often as exhilarating as it is disappointing and one winds up with a handful of clichéd nonsense (as opposed to clichéd figuration).

The poem whose intent, as it were, or whose author’s intent in writing it, is intentionlessness itself may do this more intensely. In this respect, this intentionless intent is useful most in the service of that alienating moment (derangement of the senses) of cosmic weirdness, that Zen, the “from outside” (H.P. Lovecraft) moment, the feeling rolling like smoke from incense off the lines. It is hard to say whether one can will the poem into that service, or whether it comes merely when no other agenda is present. A willingness to let the words exist for their own sake, for the sounds and associations, and not in thrall to some philosophy (like Surrealism), is paramount, or else the poem is sidetracked, and authorial meaning is reimposed.

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