Salt: Poetics (1999)

Scott Hamilton & Hamish Dewe, ed.: Salt 6 (2) (May 1999)


T. S. Eliot

Great poetry can communicate before it is understood.
T. S. Eliot

Jack is an idiot, so he needs an idiot’s guide. “Poetics” is a weasel word, used more to baffle than to communicate, so it’s difficult to find a good definition of it. Jack, however, has never been afraid to state the obvious. Here goes, then:

There are three basic meanings:
  1. The Art of Poetry: how to write it.
  2. The Theory of Poetry: what it is.
  3. The Theory of Literature: or writing in general [Greek: ποίησις / poïesis = “making”].
  4. Or, a treatise on any of the above.

Jack may be an idiot, but he’s no fool. He knows that people seldom specify which sense of the word they are using because they don’t want him to check up on them.

There are three Modernist mantras often quoted in relation to sense (1):
  • “No ideas but in things” (William Carlos Williams).
  • “… Nothing you couldn’t, in the stress of some emotion, actually say” (Ezra Pound).
  • And the one by T. S. Eliot quoted at the top of the page.

The shit is a poet. She’s a poet because she tells everyone to go to hell.
– Kathy Acker

I don’t really mind which order you read these in. Nor can I claim any originality for this page set-up. Why should I? I’m not a Modernist. In fact, I nicked it from an essay by Jean Genet called “Ce qui est resté d’un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés bien réguliers, et foutu aux chiottes.” (He lifted it from the Talmud, they say, so there you go).

Any genre of writing – political analysis, romantic novels, mathematical proofs, Ronald Reagan’s vomittings – as soon as its meaning is destroyed becomes literature.
Kathy Acker

By now you should realise that I’m in love with the late Kathy Acker, which is why I keep on quoting from her essay “The Invisible Universe,” in
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4 (1982). I like destroying meaning because meaning keeps me in my place. I want to create a universe where I get enough of everything. But it has to be convincing enough to fool me as well as you.

I’m going to talk about my poem “Wharfbury Dogs” because writing it was enough of a mechanical exercise for a shrinking violet like me to consent to expose it to the harsh glare of the spotlights (or is that the footlights?).

Three dead, white guys – all Americans, too, which may or may not be significant. Jack calls them “mantras,” but perhaps he should say “koans.”

What’s a thing? Does it have to be physical? Is the number 5 a thing, or an idea? “I refute it thus,” said Doctor Johnson of Berkeleyan Idealism, kicking a stone. Boswell pointed out that this was not logical, Captain. Sam was one ahead of him there, though. By worrying about what a thing was, you’re already worrying at what poetry is and should be.

What can we actually say? Jack has said some pretty odd things in his time, in a variety of different tongues, and has earned himself some pretty funny looks. He’s even said “forsooth” (probably), and, at least once: “Some, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose, cannot contain their urine.” You do have to watch out what you say, though, if you want to be understood. If you say the wrong thing, sometimes people burst into tears. Maybe even when you say the right thing.

My father collects old boys’ books and magazines. They’re full of British boys speaking firmly but kindly to terrified natives, having dormitory feasts with saved-up tuck, and emptying their revolvers into the black of the oncoming horde. They’re mostly printed on thick newsprint, with garish covers, to make them look worth whatever exorbitant number of shillings they originally cost.

One such is
The Wharfbury Watch-Dogs: A Scouting Story, by K. Wallis Coales (London: Oxford University Press [!]). It was reprinted in 1938 (just before wartime paper restrictions brought about the end of this publishing regime), but I don’t know when it was written. Aryan-looking lads in scout uniforms, with poles, are climbing and crouching and bending all over the cover, back and frontispiece of the book.

feel mad incurable wants for sex (symbols) you can’t have.
Kathy Acker

I wanted to destroy the surface meaning of this text in order to reveal some of the others, so I started off by typing out the first and last page, complete with page numbers, gaps and spaces. I then cut out the second word in each line, and arranged the two pages in parallel on one A4 sheet. After that I alternated words from each of the original pages into one long prose passage. Strange phrases began to appear: the word “poles” achieved an unhealthy emphasis, young Alan became a “wide boy,” suffering from “bang-stung-feet,” the boys were scouting “from five to fifty of both sexes.”

How can something communicate before it is understood? Can’t see it. It don’t make no sense. When Jack was younger he had a Russian teacher who credited this doctrine, and who accordingly read Goethe’s ballad “Die Erlkönig” out loud to the class, in German. There was a squeaky voice for the little boy and a growly voice for the rest – occasionally the word “farter” came up. And that was that.

But is that really the point? Jack doesn’t claim to understand Wallace Stevens, but he thinks that “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” is a beautiful title, even though he doesn’t have the faintest idea what it means. Jack likes music, too, without having to have it explained to him.

Jack’s axioms come down to a few words, therefore:
  • Dislocate your sense of language.
  • If it isn’t unsettling, then it’s not really alive, not interesting. We’ve got plenty of stale old crap already: we don’t need any more.
  • Idea + idea = spark.

You can see the spark as an electrical connection, as an explosion, as a chemical reaction. The point is that it must be strong enough to cross the empty air between you and your other (reader/audience). Etheric projection, that’s what we have to achieve. It’s not really theoretically possible, of course, but people keep on doing it anyway.

As for sense (2) of poetics, Jack has one more axiom to make up the three:
  • All poets secretly believe themselves to have some conduit to forces beyond themselves.

The result was otherwise kind of boring, so I started to slash the skinny page, and starve the fat one, and play with the resulting phrases in (respectively) an “epic” and an “aphoristic” way. Finally I wrote out the two original pages as a kind of frieze, which required me to run each sheet through the printer twice.

“Wharfbury Dogs,” the title, though self-generated, reminded me a little of Quentin Tarantino’s appallingly violent “Reservoir Dogs.” The aura of homoerotic drooling camouflaged so lightly in the original text comes out more fully in the doctored version, but that was perhaps predictable. The newly revealed layers are sex, and politics, and money, and class.

The boys jump around oddly in the first page; the men have taken over with their wallets on the last – from “games” to “rent,” one might say.

If I were doing it again I might take a leaf out of John Ashbery’s book (literally, in fact: his poem “Europe,” in
The Tennis Court Oath (1962), which I hadn’t read when I started to plan my poem, is constructed from a book about a girl aviator called Beryl). I would vary the texts more and maybe put in some bits in foreign languages because that tends to frighten people off.

I do like the monotone of just one text, though.

You can call it History, the Muse, God, Inspiration, but try writing poetry without it and see how far you get. It doesn’t excuse you any lapses, of course, but it means you’ve got to clean out your cloth ears and listen. “You must change your life,” as Rilke’s archaic Apollo urged (through the medium of Kendrick Smithyman).
– Dr J. M. Ross, MA (Auck), Ph.D. (Edin)

“Not witty enough,” was one criticism I received, but I’m much more interested in exterminating rational thought, the sleep of reason which breeds monsters, than in wit. Trying to be witty never made me any happier, and the only point of this poem or any other poem that I write/make is to find models which make happiness (however defined) more probable.
– Jack Ross

There are six quotes in this essay, which might suggest to you the absence of a seventh.

There are two columns, which implies that everything worth saying is in the gap
between them.

I told you Jack wasn’t afraid of stating the obvious.


Salt 6 (2) (1999): 12 & 16 & 61 & 65.
[Also at: Salt Online: Poetics (5/3/2000)]

[1469 wds]

Salt 6 (2) (1999)

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