Saturday, August 29, 2009

The END of the "Experiment"

I'm done with the phrase "experimental poetry".

Starting with the literal, let's combine the definitions of experimental and experiment to define the term (all definitions from the Random House dictionary via

"pertaining to, derived from, or founded on a test, trial, or tentative procedure"
No. Poetry isn't tentative. More on test and trial in a minute.

"pertaining to, derived from, or founded on an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc."
Tempting, because we do write to discover what's on our mind, but to term this experimental would be in ignorance of the difference between experimentation and exploration. When no response is measured ("If I do this, what will this thing do?"), discovery is an act of exploration - a documentation of what's already there (though perhaps unknown to you). Excepting acts of improvisation with a live audience, there is nothing to measure in response to the act of putting words on the page or screen.

"pertaining to, derived from, or founded on a chemical experiment OR a teaching experiment OR an experiment in living."
You might pass muster applying this definition IF the rubric or theme of the poem fits one of these definitions. However, there's nothing chemical and nothing you can live in when you're presenting a poem. Surely you can create poem as a teaching example, but that's no more an experiment than the varnished plates of food outside the Greek restaurant in the Food Court at the Mall.

"of the nature of an experiment; tentative, as in "the new program is still in an experimental stage".
Boo on tentative, but the rest has potential. However, it falls short when you realize that this means "having the potential to fail" - if the program tanks and is abandoned, it was a failed experiment - OK. But if a poem fails and is abandoned, we have a word for that: a "draft". I contend that nothing that reaches your personal definition of complete can be termed experimental.

"based on or derived from experience; empirical"
This covers everything you'll ever write.

A quick word on test and trial: a test is an action you take or a situation you create for the purpose of seeing what will happen. But it's not an experiment until set it leaves your control for the trial whose results you will observe objectively. If the piece of art you create is never outside your control, it can never pass this definition. This leaves in play the performance elements of some poetic presentations, but unless reactions are noted and changes to the poem considered, this too fails the definition.

Am I being deliberately too literal to make my point? Let's consider what turns up on the first page of a Google search for "experimental poetry":

Text Etc. discusses many different elements of poetry. About "experimental poetry", into which bucket it collects VizPo, Concrete, Conceptualism, and Code as Text, it says: "Experimental poetry can be intriguing and pleasing, but it is not poetry as commonly understood by the term, and has therefore to be judged on different grounds, most commonly those of the visual arts, which it increasingly resembles.". OK, no argument here. But if it's "not poetry", then why try to make it so - let it be a new art form, not a "poem". This is how science and engineering operate, isn't it; when the experiments begin to produce a new and unique set of rules about the systems they define, they get classed out as a new discipline with the old as its root. For further consideration, Goef Huth, who wrote on visual poetry in Poetry last year, starts his bio with "Geof Huth is a poet and visual poet..."; why do we need for the distinction if one is merely a special case of the other? Bottom line: we don't*.

In her essay at CORNER, Laura López Fernández notes that "Contemporary experimental poetry, in its various forms of manifestation -- visual poetry, phonetic poetry, sound poetry, performance poetry, non-object poetry or action art, video poetry, cyber poetry, computer holopoetry, mail-art, etc. is an integrative and interactive art that requires a "reader" willing to participate in a new configuration of semiotic codes." OK, if you know that semiotics is "the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior", and you are deeply enough integrated with contemporary poetry to accept poetry without symbols (metaphors, allegory, etc.) isn't poetry at all, what is experimental here? It's just the integration of technology or performance. These are neither new nor non-obvious extensions of poetry. BUT... if it really does require a new science, then it's a new discipline and a new art. See above.

Nothing else on the front page of the Google search attempts to define the term, though Selby's List provides many paths to explore it. There's one very silly definition that actually lists a dozen or so forms to apply if you want to create an "experimental" poem. This is the most egregious misapplication of the term and does disservice to the serious definition attempts above. Make a note: if a template exists, you're not conducting an experiment.

Let me now air the biggest flaw in this discussion: I've turned to Google, which returns results based on popularity, which isn't fair to any art form clearly operating on an extreme edge of its accepted definition and therefore not likely to be popular. I get that. But point me at a credible source that more completely explores the test-and-response definition essential to experimentation, and we can talk about the rest.

This is another area where being a career technologist disposes me to a particular interpretation - and one that in its own way, is a "fringe" opinion for someone who studies the art of poetry. I get that, too. Teach me where I'm wrong.

A final disclaimer: Don't take this to mean I don't enjoy some of the work currently showing up as "experimental". I'm really just becoming confident enough in my understanding to begin seriously tackling the copy of Poetry for the Millennium I got as a gift years ago, but I'm not ignorant of of the works of Silliman, Armantrout, Rothenberg, etc. That's not the point of this at all. The point is this:

Don't marginalize forms or create barriers that prevent new audiences from encountering poetry by branding it with a scary and inappropriate term. Just make it, and just take it in.

*BTW, You should go spend an hour on Geof's website; just because I disagree with the term doesn't mean it's not well worth your time.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Ted says it the best I've seen it said: "The artist ... concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. " The artist creates because the artist must create AND with the implicit expectation of an audience.

Diane, discussing ways technology is enabling aural encounter with far-flung poets, remarks: "... historically, poetry is an oral art form. How hard do we work to get music into our lines? And yet, most often we encounter poetry only on the page". As someone with "engineering" and "technology" in the titles of my degrees, I love this observation; is the augmentation of the human experience through deployment of technology. And yet a return to the root of the art also. Perfect.

Matt has Batman taking himself a little too seriously. I've been toying with writing about superheroes, but whenever I do I think of Lucille Clifton's Clark Kent Poems and Jeannine Gailey's poems and wonder what I can add. I think Matt's got the angle that is unique to those of us who were never quite far enough out there to dress up as Iron Man but who kept thinking you know, this guy is really interesting. Hmm.

Robert asks for "mistake poems". Mine's here:

The Dodge Blog suggests Twelve Great Spots in NJ, and their choices are all fine, but I wish there were a way to add hearing BJ Ward read his "New Jersey" or Joe Weil and his "Morning at the Elizabeth Arch". Ideally, we'd do this over Italian hot dogs and a nice tomato and mozzarella.

And now off to the kitchen...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

August in New Jersey

It's August in New Jersey. Local's thoughts are turning to tomatoes (even TWA is feeling the sway with a produce poem from Barbara Crooker, a writer with links to The Garden State), and poetry series are starting to resprout around the landscape. Here are links to just a few:

The Spoken Word Series (Hoboken)
The Carriage House Poetry Series (Fanwood)
The Distinguished Poets Series (Paterson)
Delaware Valley Poets (Princeton)
Second Wednesdays poetry readings (Rutherford)
PoetsWednesday (Woodbridge)

And that ain't all. Anthony Buccino keeps a much more complete list of events than I (click NJ Poets and Poetry at your right). If live near the intersection of two numbered highways and can't find a way to participate in poetry this fall, it's all on you.


Did you hear that the Dodge has been resuscitated? Somehow I missed that in the busyness of the past few weeks. I vote Montclair, if that matters to anyone. I don't think any of them will be as easy to get to as Waterloo, though; and no urban center will have the same magic. Dovie Thomason's stories and Coleman Barks reading Rumi were almost spiritual experiences when encountered from within a dewy sunrise.


Got a bit of minor grief over the euphemisms for salty language in my last post. Listen, I'm not really that prissy when it comes to language (Die Hard is one of my favorite movies, after all), but I am a firm believer in applying language appropriately to the situation, and that as students and lovers of language, we should be able to describe something that is exceptionally good without expletives or the word "awesome". And that awareness of the audience requires adaptation of our word selection; my daughters and my mother stop by here occasionally, after all.


iGoogle's Literary Quote for today: "Humor is an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of man's superiority to all that befalls him." - Romain Gary

Amen. And on that note, I'm off to a First Birthday Party.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Summer is careening to an end, and if your house is anything like mine, you're cramming in all the goofing off you've been meaning to do* but have been too busy to get to. Ah, life!


Linguistic thought from two days at the local Six Flags: Am I the last person who thinks that not all s-words are interchangeable with the word "stuff"? Corollary: am I the only adult who looks at the prominent "No Profanity" signs around the park and doesn't think "What the bleep do they mean by 'profanity'"? Essay question: Does "public place" equate to "freedom to drop the f-bomb"?


I picked up John Updike's last book of poems at the library tonight, thumbed through it for about 4 minutes, concluded I'd derived all the value I was likely to derive from it, put it back where I found it, and moved on. How haughty is that for an amateur?


In a fortunate act, I happened to grab Bias and Do You Speak American during a single library visit last week. You can agree with disagree with Goldberg (I'm about 70/30 agreed with a touch of "All right, already!"), but when you consider the idea that subtleties of word choice and sentence construction are are least as influential as blatant acts of opinion-pushing alongside the truism that language is influenced by evolutions in opinion and societal norms, you have a terribly interesting future to consider as linguaphile. And as a consumer of news media, but you're not going to find any chatter on that subject within these walls.


Catching up on August bloggings, I was happy to scroll past the recognizable presence of Joel Lewis on Silliman's Blog. Lewis was an early participant in the Spoken Word Series, generous not only just in being there, but in advice and in bringing wine and traditional treats for the audience. He's got a gift that is rare even among the artists I follow, in that he's equally compelling talking about baseball or about mythology. Or the mythology of baseball.


Back on swearing at Six Flags, after receiving a minor earful from a young lady (19? 20?) for suggesting that some colloquialisms are inappropriate in line for a water slide with the under-10 crowd, I naturally ran into said young lady throughout the day. And here's the thing: she was perfectly pleasant and friendly the whole time. She just didn't care much for me objecting to her expletives. And when I moved through the pain of being though a fuddy-duddy (though this I surely am), all I could think was that there had to be better words than the ones she was deploying repeatedly (though certainly with versatility).


Which leads me back to a comment from a non-poet and infrequent reader of poetry, upon hearing me read a Frank Steele poem: "That doesn't sound like poetry." What does poetry sound like, anyway? Like language unfettered by any rules at all? Like the prosey observations of Updike? Like text with new words invented for new and perfect purposes? Like Joel Lewis' "I bought my language/at a flea market/and the small talk here//on Paterson Plank Road/is a conception vessel/for native inertia".



* - yes, I know that's a line from Calvin and Hobbes. But thanks for asking!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

In Which Poetry's Obituary Appears Someplace New

I read Parade Magazine. All right? We past that now? OK, then.

From this weekend's edition:

Q Why are my tax dollars going to pay a poet laureate when nobody reads poetry?

A “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there,” wrote the great American poet William Carlos Williams. (We hope you’ll look him up!) While it’s true that not many people read poetry, they’d probably get a lot out of it if they gave it a try. The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Californian Kay Ryan, earns all of $35,000. But fret not: Her stipend is funded from a private endowment, not tax revenues.

Don't know which I find more ridiculous, the question itself or that Parade magazine was perceived to be the appropriate reference. But in any event, let the record show that not only is poetry not dead, but no fewer than three coworkers have approached me in the past two months when they found out I was active in the poetry community to - get this - talk about poetry. We have a little book club in the office which this week has selected an anthology and asked that each attendee read aloud a poem from the book and explain why they like or dislike it. 'Nuff said.

I grow weary of people who don't know where to look for poetry telling me they can't find it. It makes me want to link to the quote that goes something like "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt", but I can't locate a trustworthy attribution anywhere.

But please: that I can't find it in a 3-minute search doesn't mean it can't be found.

And it doesn't mean it's wrong.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

What Makes it Poetry (part 2)?

Continuing the thought....

Ron Silliman adds: "What I find most appalling about William Shatner’s presentation of Sarah Palin Verbatim is not the implicit satire of poetry that it is, but rather that it is so much better than the poetry, say, we find on Prairie Home Companion. The inchoate argle-bargle of Alaska’s former governor, simply as found language, is more open-ended – and at times more evocative – than the very best “Good Poems” Lake Woebegon has to offer."

Diane Lockward reports that at her recent Rotary Club talk, "Someone else asked me for a definition of poetry. A trick question! I used Stafford's definition: an artistic arrangement of words on the page. Music came in again. And some of the special techniques of poetry. Line breaks. Stanzas instead of paragraphs." (Stafford said "A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite the hearer or reader a certain kind of attention. The kind of attention that is invited will appear—sort of—in what follows."

Ted Burke's opinion is that "Poetry is what ever gets you to the next page", that "part of what makes poetry interesting is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things."

A few minute with iGoogle reveal hundreds of other thoughts. A few of these I find easily rejectable (the worst offender being to first define "poet", then any art the "poet" produces is a poem - complete nonsense). Irrespective of whether one likes or dislikes a poem, there are a couple of things (and to my mind, only a couple) that require something to be considered a poem:

  • Awareness of language. I don't care what they are, but there need to signs of be conscious of word choice, or if narrative is not germane to the piece, signs of awareness of language in the linguistic choices made, whether for the page, the ear or the eye.
  • Awareness of form. Whether you follow or challenge, conform or avoid, you have to know the rules to break them. The way the poem appears in its fixed form has to reflect an awareness that position of every letter or word or sign is important.
  • Presence of metaphor (or simile). If you're reporting the news, that's prose. If you're extrapolating the news from a dropped nickel or looking through the footage of the explosion to see a mantis on the sill, that's poetry.

Most notable omission comparing my list to others? "Significance of content" is purely a multiplier in my mind. Writing about an important subject no more ensures poetry than does the importance of selecting a life partner make every date a proposal.

Obviously much more on this subject than I can produce in this small space. But thinking about this has got me questioning my own work, too. Maybe that's where I take this next...