"I think academic and literary theories and politics have weakened poetry..."

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Only Connect: A Conversation
With Paul Lake

Interview by
Joan Houlihan

Paul Lake's first poetry collection, Another Kind of Travel, received the Porter Fund Award for Literary Excellence. His essays on poetry have appeared widely in journals and anthologies and he is a regular contributer to the Contemporary Poetry Review. Lake is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at Arkansas Tech University and lives in Russellville with his wife, artist Tina Lake, and their two children.

Paul, all of your essays are rich and thought-provoking. What is your background, how did you come to make the connections you make between science and poetry?

There’s really nothing in my academic background that might account for the ideas on poetry and science in my recent essays. My undergraduate degree from Towson University is in English and my M. A. from Stanford is in creative writing and English. My reading, however, has always ranged over a wide array of subjects, and at some point I started making connections between ideas put forward by various poet-critics like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, S. T. Coleridge, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and ideas I was reading about in other fields. I’m strictly an amateur in the root sense of the word. I read and write about things for the sheer love of it. I’m not an expert on anything, but sometimes being an outsider is an advantage because it enables one to see what the already-initiated don’t. For instance, I began reading about chaos and complexity in science about the same time that I began reading some introductory books on Poststructuralist criticism—which I’d never studied in college--and the two seemed to directly contradict each other on many of the same points. I’m also passionately interested in poetry, and much of what postmodernism says about poetry and what the literary avant-garde often embodies violate my deeply-held convictions about the nature and importance of poetry. I think academic and literary theories and politics have weakened poetry, lowered its estimation in the eyes of educated readers, and shaken the confidence of poets. In writing the essays, I simply wanted to contest what I thought were mistaken ideas.

While your essays are constructed as a defense of formalist poetry, I come away from them with a much better sense of the poet’s creative process in general, and especially its larger connection to all of nature. You make a compelling case in “The Shape of Poetry”, for example, for the existence of a parallel between the laws of complexity in chaos theory and the formulation of a poem, that form is not imposed from without but governed from within and in response to many factors, most of them unknown by the poet. This effectively negates the idea of the “authority-based” and top-down creation of a formal poem that Language and avant-garde poets rail against. I wonder what you think though, about poems that devise their own form as they proceed? In fact, there may be no such thing as “free” verse, only instances of form, some recognized/recognizable, some too individual or quirky to be recognized as a form. If your parallel is accurate in every respect, could it be that poets are writing in form all the time, but the forms are not recognized as such—yet?

T. S. Eliot once famously said that no verse is free for the poet who wants to do a good job-- and there’s the rub. Of course there are all sorts of rudimentary forms and conventions in even the most “free” verse. For instance, most free verse follows the convention of using the Roman alphabet and the rules of English grammar and syntax, of writing in lines as opposed to paragraphs, of using more figurative language than most prose, of paying more attention to the sounds and rhythms words make. Using parallel syntactical structures or opening every line with the same words are examples of form within otherwise “free” verse. This is a somewhat different thing, though, from saying that all free verse, however seemingly formless and quirky, has some kind of deep formal structure shaping it that we somehow, inexplicably, can’t perceive. A form that can’t be perceived or described—that is, experienced or explained--can hardly be said to exist, can it?

As I tried to show in my essay “Disorderly Orders,” the best “free” verse of poets such as Whitman, Pound, and Eliot employs rhythmical repetitions that can be loosely mapped with the conventional feet of Greek and English prosody. As Pound pointed out, in some of his supposedly “free” verse he was freely adapting (substituting stress for duration) the same Greek feet as those used by the early Greek dramatists before Greek prosody had been formalized into a system. Your question about “poems that devise their own forms as they proceed” is a good one. What I would argue is that that is precisely how the Greek literary tradition--and later ones including the English—in fact originated: with poets fooling around with sounds and rhythms until they cohered into recognizable patterns. Similarly, today when a poet writes in a traditional form, such as a sonnet, he or she rarely begins by saying, “I think I’ll write a sonnet.” He begins by fooling around with some lines until they coalesce into a pattern he begins to recognize as a sonnet. Two terms from complexity science are sometimes useful for talking about evolving forms: scaling and self-similarity—that is, the tendency of things undergoing feedback in a dynamic process (like that of writing) to repeat certain patterns at different scales, from the large to the small. It seems to me that that is exactly what formal poems—that is metrical, formal poems—do. And as I tried to show in that essay, some “free” verse--such as certain poems of Whitman, Pound, and Eliot--often shows similar, if somewhat looser, patterns. There might be said to be a continuum of poetic form—at one end, a nearly “free” verse with few discernible repeated patterns, and at the other, say, a Hopkins sonnet. Complex literary forms evolve over time. Though we later consider them “traditional,” they started out by evolving from earlier experiments. No authority ever decreed them into being.

In the same essay, you quote Coleridge as saying:

“…but a living body is of necessity an organized one—and what is organization but the connection of parts to a whole, so that each part is at once end and means! This is no discovery of criticism, it is a necessity of the human mind—..”

And I agree. But I also think that the “connection of parts to a whole” can be stretched very far in contemporary poetry while still being part of a whole. For example, the so-called elliptical poets give us points on a map, or partial routes and topography, requiring the reader to fill in the rest.

Do you think this is a valid idea, that the reader can be part of the creation of a whole, of an order, of some coherence, in a poem?

I would say that the reader of a poem is involved in the poem’s meaning even before he picks up the poem and reads it for the first time. While writing the poem, the poet has a model of his potential readers in mind—or rather, a model of their minds, of how they might react to his various ploys and strategies. The poet is also often surprised by how the language behaves, by what it does under his or her prodding, and so he also uses his own mind as a model of how readers might react. But I don’t believe in what I call the ink-blot theory of poetry—the idea that a poet should just throw out a lot of suggestive verbal ink-blots to let readers construct from them what they may—to connect the dots, as it were. And I don’t think the model you suggest—of offering a few points on a putative map for readers to fill in for themselves—is a particularly useful poetic theory either.

One problem with using maps and collages as poetic models is that both are two-dimensional--and static. To quote Pound again, poetry is, by contrast, “a shape cut into time.” It moves and flows. Likewise, I would be very careful about trying to make poetry “elliptical”—in any sense of the word. Ellipses are two-dimensional shapes on a page. Like many of the terms used by the avant-garde, “elliptical” is derived from Euclidean geometry. What makes the two passages above work is not their elliptical quality or collage-like juxtapositions; it’s the wedding of the haunting metrical music and imagery to induce a certain mood in the reader. The problem today is that many poets do use static models for their verse, and as a result, some, like Jorie Graham, become merely tedious and tendentious.

Here’s a passage from Stephen Burt’s article on elliptical poetry (he coined the term):

"Elliptical Poets are always hinting, punning or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. Elliptics seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don't believe in, or seek, a judicious tone. Elliptical poets like insistent, bravura forms, and forms with repetends - sestinas, pantoums, or fantasias on single words, like Liam Rector's 'Saxophone':

You and I, our money. Their money.
Our pleasure and fist full of money.
Laughter over money, serious money,
over money. Too much, too little,
fluid money. The saxophone, color of wheat,
purchased through Hock Shop money, saxophone
splitting the night, our air, blowing money."

Is Burt talking about form in the same way you understand it?

Much of what you’ve quoted above from Burt’s essay "Shearing Away" is simply a list of Romantic and Modernist techniques presented in more contemporary, hip language. A line like “Elliptics seek the authority of the rebellious,” for instance, reflects the now long-held Romantic notion that there is some special moral authority conferred by rebellion, even rebellion for its own sake. The Romantics, however, were actually rebelling against something. Like the children of the Enlightenment that they were, they were rebelling against monarchy and the established churches of their countries. They wanted to start real revolutions, like the Americans and French, to create democratic governments. Byron died leading a rebellion in Greece against the Turkish occupation of the home of Western democracy. The Elliptical poets, by contrast, sound like poseurs who seek the “authority of the rebellious” (a rather curious locution) because it’s, well, cool—as if moral and artistic authority were automatically conferred by the act of rebellion. It’s an adolescent pose, which is fine if you’re an adolescent, but if not, not.

The most interesting and illuminating part of Burt’s quote is the line about how Elliptical poets “are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory.” This, too, is a technique that goes back to early Modernism. Yvor Winters even invented a pejorative term to describe T. S. Eliot’s use of “a never-quite-unfolded backstory” hovering behind the arras in lines like these from “Gerontion”:

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering Judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madam de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall . . .

Winters called this technique of hinting at a non-existent backstory with narrative fragments peopled by characters only sketchily-drawn or merely named “Pseudo-reference.” There IS no back- story, Winters argued. Who is this Mr. Silvero? who is Hakagawa? and why is he bowing among the Titians? The names and barely-limned scenes merely tease the reader with the idea that there’s a more fully developed narrative behind them when in fact there is no such thing.

Other Ellipticist techniques Burt describes--like violating decorum and mixing high and low diction--have been done to death by Modernists and later postmodern poets such as those of the New York School. Later in his essay Burt adds that Elliptical poets “create inversions, homages, takeoffs on old or ‘classic’ poets.” This again goes back to collage in the works of visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, a contemporary of the New York school poets, who mixed images from pop and high culture. The sudden shifts in tone Burt describes are equally present in poems by Koch and Ashbery. Like retelling the same joke, the technique doesn’t get better with repeated use.

I find myself much more in accord with Burt when, in his interview with you, he says that the question he asks himself when confronted with a seemingly incoherent poem is “how much narrative or argumentative work . . . am I willing to perform in order to make some lines which sound good seem to fit together?” Like Burt, I don’t think the writer has the right to ask too much of me, to force me to do the poet’s work for her. And like Burt, I’m willing to pay more attention to a poem if, as he says, the poem sounds good, if its language is inviting and gives me pleasure. Unfortunately, the Elliptical poets like Forrest Gander, Mark Levine, Jorie Graham, and others Burt names, generally fall flat, for me, for lack of this type of verbal music. Unmetered and generally scanty in their use of sonic devices like rhyme, assonance, and alliteration; often asyntactic, fragmentary, and choppy, the poems simply don’t engage my ear or compel me to explore them more deeply. Reading an Elliptical poem provides an experience similar to channel-surfing, where a scene from a classic movie is suddenly juxtaposed to a cartoon, then a crime drama, a deodorant commercial, a rap video, a sixties sitcom. “That’s exactly right,” the argument runs; “that’s simply postmodern reality, accurately rendered.” Well, in fact, it’s not: it’s only the reality of channel-surfing rendered. When we as living human animals make love, engage in conversation with friends, talk to our doctor, work at our job, watch our children compete in a race, we move to completely different rhythms, with real narrative flow and emotional peaks and valleys, beginnings and endings, with real consequences, as when your doctor tells you that you have a terrible disease or a lover tells you he or she still loves you at the end of a difficult period.

As Burt himself points out, good lyrics often contain argument and narrative, to give them structure. Both devices are ways of organizing time and focusing the reader’s attention. The problem with elliptical poetry, as (for me, at least) with most so-called language poetry, is that the writers almost entirely eschew narrative and argument, leaving the reader awash in a sea of seemingly unrelated—or tenuously related--images and fragments. The human attention span is limited; it doesn’t have an infinite capacity for focusing on a hundred different seemingly unrelated things. But if you link images and ideas in a narrative or argument, a reader can flow with the rhythm of the story or argument and organize the details in her mind. The great Modernists like Eliot, Joyce, and Pound were masters of the conventions of their media like rhythm and narrative. Look at the verbal music in the opening of Ulysses or the metrical parts of The Waste Land. On top of that, the Modernists also employed what Eliot called “the mythical method.” Joyce in Ulysses not only employed elements of conventional fictional narrative in his Dublin story but overlaid that on top of another richer, more mythical narrative, The Odyssey. Eliot and Pound employed similar myths to hold together their fragmentary epics The Waste Land and The Cantos (though in Pound’s case, the central myth kept shifting). By contrast, the fragmentary and incomplete “backstory” of an Elliptical poem is generally too tenuous and broken a thing on which to hang a poem or maintain a reader’s attention. Much of the poetry of the great Modernists remains wonderful to read because of its beautiful music and large, mythic movements. By contrast, most postmodern poetry seems to be little more than infinitely-reproducible nonsense once you’ve learned a few easy tricks.

Pound famously advised that poetry should be at least as well written as good prose. And much of what goes under the name of various postmodern schools of poetry is abysmal judged by the standards of good prose. The surface playfulness and random mechanical shifts can’t provide the same level of attention-fixing or sheer aural pleasure as a more coherent poem using traditional sound devices. It has often been observed that poetry tends to go wrong when it strays too far from conversation and song. If someone called you up and spoke elliptical poetry to you for a while over the phone, you’d soon grow weary and hang up. If, after several such calls, your Caller ID identified the caller as an acquaintance known to babble elliptically, you’d soon stop answering. I wouldn’t pin my literary reputation in posterity on a style of writing that makes people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of my name.

If, as you contend, the poem is an organic form governed by rules from within as much as from without, the way nature’s forms are governed, then maybe it’s impossible for a poet to write a “rule-less” poem. Despite the poet’s intention to “stop making sense”, perhaps every utterance, like a deep grammar, is governed in spite of that intention. As you quote from Hopkins:

“All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as a purpose.”

Could it be argued from your same principles that seemingly random, free verse poetry not obviously connected or coherent, actually is connected, just much more loosely? That we don’t see the pattern, but it exists because it’s not possible for an utterance to be without some order?

Of course, some vestige of sense will cling to any agglomeration of words or sounds, but why settle for so little when you can make something super-charged with meaning and pleasure instead? Once again, it’s a matter of degrees along a continuum. Let me make an analogy from science again. According to modern cosmology, the universe itself started from nothing when a super-heated particle appeared, rapidly expanded and cooled, developing rules and forms as it did. The rules don’t appear to have been imposed from without, though by some strange paradox the possibility of the laws—such as those of gravity and the composition of complex atoms—appears to have existed at least as potential within that original particle. The rules of chemistry that make chemical reactions and bonds are pretty simple compared to something like the rules that govern complex things like the bodies of higher animals. As Frederick Turner has pointed out, rocks obey the law of gravity when you drop them; so do babies, but babies are infinitely more complex than rocks and live at a higher order of being. There’s a continuum of levels of order ranging from the pure randomness of absolute chaos, as in static, to simple physical and chemical laws, to complex orders involving feedback like the forming of a human baby with its various organs from two initial cells.

If you want truly “free” verse, that is, verse free from all rules, you’ll have to shatter syntax and grammar and even the rules of spelling. But why stop there? Why not free verse even from the oppressive rule of being written with letters, and make it from pure human sounds voiced into a microphone (as in fact some language poets have done)? And why not free those sounds from the restrictions of the human vocal range and electronically alter them? Sure, there’d be something left, some hint or vestige of a human voice and maybe even language, behind the cacophony of whistles and howls. There may even be some emotive quality lingering in the electronic sounds you generate. But what’s so great about making language “free” in that sense? Why not reverse the process and add more rules to make language more, rather than less, complex. Hopkins, like Coleridge, knew that it was rules or laws operating on chance—not chance alone--that gave nature its designs. And so in making poetry, why not add more rules to complexify language. To the rules of grammar and syntax and the need to make “sense,” why not repeat and vary some of the patterns that your language makes, and repeat some of the sounds, to create and fulfill--and sometimes defeat--an expectation of order in the reader. Why not let poetic language make more, rather than less, sense than ordinary conversation or standard prose? Why not make language like music, instead of like static? That, to me, is the ultimate rationale of poetic meter and form.

Would you say that blank verse, like formal verse, is the result of a self-organizing system of rules? If not, what makes the difference?

Yes. Blank verse is a form that has evolved into being in the English-language tradition out of earlier forms like the native four-stress line and the experiments of poets (versed in the classical tradition) who began playing with patterns inherited from the Mediterranean cultures of the south. Some prosodists argue that English’s original four-stress line can still be heard today inside our blank verse battling with Greek iambics.

Why would anyone write formal verse today except as an exercise, as a way to understand the history of poetry? It doesn’t seem likely that writing in received forms will advance the art. Comment?

I would argue that the notion that poets should “advance the art” of poetry results from linear thinking and is based on the mistaken notion that literary history moves in a straight two-dimensional line. This is precisely what the notion of a literary “avant-garde” suggests, that literary history is a one-way arrow, with an artistic vanguard at its tip. Today the avant-garde has trapped itself at the end of a dead-end street. Once you’ve broken things down to atoms and shattered the atom and its parts in a process of reverse evolution, where do you go next? Why not try evolution in the other direction, instead?

I would suggest that instead of a line, we think of the literary tradition as a winding stairway that advances by continuously circling back on itself. Or think of the double helix of DNA. Ezra Pound once urged that we “Make it new.” The “it” being the literary tradition. To make it new, you first have to know it at the deepest level and move it—in whatever direction--by extending principles already inherent in it. You get to the top of a circular stairway only by circling back to the point where you began, each time with a different sense of where you are and where you’re going, as Eliot wisely pointed out in Four Quartets, a poem whose very title suggests that its language aspires toward the condition of music.

Thanks, Paul, for sharing your insights on poetry with Perihelion.