Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Poetry of Experience

Mark points out that everybody has an ideology, by which he means a consistent set of assumptions and ideas that add up to a "limited point of view": nobody can get beyond their own point of view, exit the hermeneutic circle, occupy Rawls' original position, etc. And Mark is correct—although I suspect that we differ about the value of experience, of implicit as against explicit principles, of inductive, as it were, reasoning (rather than the deductive reasoning that comes from applied manifestos) as a producer of what we see in what we read. (See, here, Christopher Ricks's "Literary Principles as Against Theory," and then see almost anything by William Carlos Williams written between 1920 and 1950-- on this point, and on few others, Williams and Ricks seem to me to be on the same side.)


...Poetry that used to go hand in hand with life, poetry that interpreted our deepest promptings, poetry that inspired, that led us forward to new discoveries, new depths of tolerance, new heights of exaltation. You moderns! it is the death of poetry that you are accomplishing. No, I cannot understand this work. You have not yet suffered a cruel blow from life. When you have suffered you will write differently?’”
Perhaps this noble apostrophe means something terrible for me, I am not certain, but for the moment I interpret it to say, “You have robbed me. God, I am naked. What shall I do”— By it they mean that when I have suffered (provided I have not done so as yet) I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age.
But today it is different.

William Carlos Williams, Spring and All

A poet has nothing but experience to go on. To live and to experience living are essentially the same. Even our speculations, as obscure or hopeful as they may be, are connected to our experiences, however different from those experiences they are. When our speculations are profoundly different from our experiences, that shows how profoundly they are connected.

When somebody writes that they disagree with me about the value of experience in poetry, I wonder what it is that they imagine that I think about experience or how they know so easily how experience shapes anybody’s poetry.

Williams, in Spring and All from 1923, imagines himself being lectured by an anti-Modernist writer in the passage above, a moment of imagination clearly connected to many actual reactions to Modernist experimentation. And it’s a lack of experience—specifically the experience of suffering, the central crucible of experience in the Christian tradition—that the anti-Modernist accuses him of having. According to the anti-Modernist, it’s Williams lack of experience that causes him to write his anti-life anti-poetry.

As it turns out, accusing experimental approaches of lacking a grounding in experience dates back at least to the beginnings of modernism.

Many years later, that’s still a common criticism made by those who distrust any poetry that seems to them too experimental. That it plays with words (or any other materials) more than it values experiences. Once writers come to value experience properly, they will be more cautious in the games they play.

Therefore, a writer who really understood what it was like to live in the world—had suffered as others have suffered—would not write in this newfangled way.

What that argument suggests is that experience is not being addressed properly if it is addressed in certain ways.

Admittedly, and thankfully, since there would be nothing for writing to do otherwise, there are different ways of addressing experiences. Conventional representation—images mean to give us a direct picture of a thing in the world—are one way, often a powerful way, of doing that. And sometimes when events are particularly unspeakable, having conventional representational images of them might help many other people understand those events.

One danger though is that such images only seem to give understanding to readers; they can never actually do it. Readers may gain understanding from a poem, but the poem cannot do that work. Readers have to. Further, a poem might itself appear to embody understanding in a way that suggests that there’s nothing further to understand, when in fact any given poem is almost certainly no more than one possible way of approaching understanding.

It’s not clear that any kind of writing automatically leads a reader to be more likely to understand anything. It’s not clear that any kind of writing automatically embodies experience. To claim so is to misunderstand experience while claiming to understand it. Much more than people who realize that they don’t understand, it’s important to distrust people who feel they understand experience when their claims in fact show that they don’t.

I distrust someone who claims that the problem with experimental or extreme approaches writing is that too much of it is done by writers who don’t understand the significance of experience. And I say this from experience.

SB suggests, above, that valuing experience in a poem may be considered an act of inductive reasoning: one writes in a certain way about a certain experience because the experience itself leads to a conclusion about how best to write about it.

But inductive reasoning never offers certainty, only probability. The conclusions of induction can never be more than the most likely conclusion. Writing on the basis of inductions about experience can in fact never lead to the conclusion that there is one best way to write about an experience. At best it can lead us to the conclusion that given some particular experience, some particular way of writing about it is likely to feel most compelling.

In fact, the idea that writers who write about experience should make their decisions on how to write based on inductive conclusions from their experiences actually comes from deductive reasoning. It assumes a conclusion based on a prior principle: that experiences inevitably lead to certain ways of writing. And therefore it’s not simply deductive reasoning. It’s flawed deductive reasoning:

1) All good writing writes from and about experience.
2) Experiences require (or are likely to most commonly suggest) a specific way of writing about them.
3) This particular experience, since I have experienced it and want to express my relationship to it, will lead me to write in a particular way.
4) I have experienced this experience and therefore I will write in this way.

Almost every deduction in the above chain is flawed in some or many ways, of which these are only the most obvious:

1) There is nothing other than experience for writing to come from or be about, so this claim has no actual content.
2) It’s not proved that, in general, experiences require a specific way of writing or are even most likely to suggest one.
3) Although this claims has moved from the general to the specific, it contains the same unproved assumption as #2.
4) The writer is rendered passive in relationship to the situation. Writing becomes not an active process but one in which experiences, if understood properly, will lead to a loss of choice: how to write about them becomes inevitable or at least close to it.

I suspect therefore that I do not disagree with SB about the value of experience, as SB suggests I do. Instead I’m at odds with his implication about what experience leads to in poetry.

All that said, I don’t disagree that it’s possible to write poetry too controlled by its own guiding theoretical principles. It’s just that the idea that experience offers some more practical solution to that problem is itself an overly controlling and faulty principle. In fact a lot of conventional poetry that describes experiences in the world is constrained by an overly controlling perception about how poems should be written.

Of course, much of this problem ties back into my earlier blog post about ideologues. Implicit in SB’s claim is that I am (and perhaps, anyone with excessive experimental leanings?) likely to believe that what I should write about has been dictated entirely to me by principles that I have decided upon in advance. In this view, apparently I’m not willing to test my literary beliefs relative to actual experience. Instead, in my writing I shove my principles forward without understanding what’s happening around me, oblivious to all nuance.

Which strikes me as not a very inductive conclusion.

One last thing that interests me about this issue: We are living in an era—and it’s not the first and won’t be the last—when people often claim to have absorbed a tradition of experimental art or writing, found it wanting and moved beyond it.

Then they show, through their response to it, that far from moving beyond it they haven’t yet absorbed what it has to tell them.


Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Good post.

I really liked this bit: "One danger though is that such images only seem to give understanding to readers; they can never actually do it. Readers may gain understanding from a poem, but the poem cannot do that work. Readers have to." Excellent point. My general problem with representation is that it seems to have given knowledge--one absorbs the representation and it feels like knowledge--but often there is no knowledge there.

Representation creates the danger that the reader will mistake the reiteration of conventions for the transfer of knowledge. And this is why much representational writing is pleasantly forgettable.

Representations of experience in conventional forms often tell more about the conventions then about the experiences themselves. And the conventions are precisely what we already know.

Furthermore, as an author I'm more interested in relaying what I've learned from the effort to understand what other people are or might be experiencing--my primary focus is not on relaying my own experience. This may be the deepest difference between writing I find interesting and writing I consider conventional.

Robb St. Lawrence said...

"the idea that experience offers some more practical solution to that problem is itself an overly controlling and faulty principle. In fact a lot of conventional poetry that describes experiences in the world is constrained by an overly controlling perception about how poems should be written."

A lovely way to put this. Not to mention the way that one's understanding of 'experience' and its value(s) is itself mediated, scarcely accessible outside of some sort of framework. It's my understanding that this was the purpose of the gendered, get-in-touch-with-our-feelings groups were about in sixties and seventies---to put a frame around experience, so as to make it available to different political and social uses. To return to the under-girding terms of discussion about feminist poetry from a previous post, to suggest that there is some essential means by which "experience" mediates artistic production is not much different than conflating gender (performance, visible and continuous product) with the sexed body. And it's the kind of thing that, when pushed on, leads to all sorts of issues with prescription for, for example, women and minority writers.

captcha: apoogiz.

brian (baj) salchert said...

The experiences of a particular human, while they always in some ways intersect with the experiences of other humans, are nonetheless unique to that particular human.

When WCW wrote his poem about how a cat moves, he was providing a careful description of that animal activity. Was it a direct portrayal of what he actually witnessed, an imagined portrayal, or a combination of those? Without his having clarified the genesis of his portrayal, it is impossible to know. Still, most readers of his poem accept it as being delightfully and wonderfully accurate.

I don't want to argue against what you say here because I feel it is superbly said. So, what I want to do is emphasize another of your sentences. "Admittedly, and thankfully, since there would be nothing for writing to do otherwise, there are different ways of addressing experiences."


Don Zirilli said...

Have you read The New Thing, an article in the Boston Review by Stephen Burt? (The Old Thing is the Fence crowd) His use of "Thing" is no coincidence. The idea that we as poets can safely transmit a Thing is very similar to the idea of writing an experience, no? I think Stephen would use them interchangeably in the case of this article. Anyway, he's sounding a lot like someone calling for a poetry of experience... or rather, saying that such a poetry is already here... in poets such as Justin Marks, Joseph Massey, Maureen McLane, Mark Nowak, Elizabeth Treadwell, Alissa Valles, Jeffrey Yang and Jon Woodward. I'll be publishing Mr. Massey some time this summer. I hope you don't think I'm too thingie!

Johannes said...


Yes, I made this connection as well. But in the case of "new thing" I think it's interesting to look at the rhetoric of those authors; not just Steve's article, since he afterall takes his cues from them. It's also interesting how some of them cause troubles for his argument, mostly I think Treadwell.


Lemon Hound said...

Very intriguing post, Mark. What I have been attempting to get at myself, only of course, coming from me, it's the long way around.

The idea simply, that we have a choice in how we represent our experience and feeling seems to cause some consternation among poets. I am not sure why.

By the way, the graph makes my head spin. For some reason I simply can't take information in that way.

anon said...

i understand the argument. but for me it goes further in that every poem i read by some collegiate writer is either about them in a coffee shop, at a bus station, or in a museum. i think there just is a lack of interesting experience to start with in the moderns. there is no daring, but rather experiments without hypotheses. if you don't sympathize with the anti-moderns or post-moderns then i don't know what to say to you. this trend i see on the internet, with poetry blogs and online mags in particular, is a more acute modernism more than anything else... or a dead modernism in most of these writings. is williams' poetics really something you want to adhere to in this new century? if yes then more power to you.

Jordan said...

I found out about the Philosophy Club's panel on the question "What Is a Thing?" from a poster taped to the side of a mailbox.

The part of that WCW quote that gets me is the phrase, "refuge in fantasy."

Art Durkee said...

i agree that no one kind (style, genre, whatever) of writing has got a lock on embodying experience. We're too diverse, for one thing, and don't share a lot of experiences. There are radical extremes of unshared experience, too, but we're all human in the end, and share at least that much.

I furthermore agree that the presumption that someone who has had some genuine experience in life would not right in experimental ways.

That's obviously wrong. It can be easily shown to be wrong, by example after example. The style of writing is a different axis of interpretation than is the content: one may write about an experience in many different ways.

Nonetheless, the criticism that "accusing experimental approaches of lacking a grounding in experience" holds merit to the extent that there is a point in which the writing, being done for its own sake, no longer connects with experience—even the poet's own experience. This is seen in some of the LangPo manifestos, wherein language is deliberately disconnected from meaning, which comes from experience. The problem isn't with the style of the poetry, but with its disconnect from the soma. Poetry needs to have SOME kind of shared-experience connection with the reader, or it becomes masturbatory, obscure just to be obscure, or so hermetic that no one cares or could understand. Then it IS all surface noise. Which is fine as far as it goes. My personal lack of interest in that particular canyon of experimental writing doesn't mean I reject the principle, or the attempt.

The irony of course is that I get accused of being an experimental poet all the time. I've received those same anti-Modern arguments you mention; mostly from neo-formalists, to be honest. LOL I've even gotten the "This isn't a poem at all!" response once or twice in the past year.

And from the other direction, I've been accused of not being a serious poet because I'm still interested in conveying a somatic experience, kindling a response in the reader, connecting to them if only via Dreamtime.

Some of this is just plain snobbery on the part of those ultra-post-Modernists who have formed cliques against the rest of us. That's fine, although it's probably a dead end.

I just find it amusing that my poetry is too weird for some, and not weird enough for others. LOL

Go figure.

mark wallace said...

Thanks, Art. I'm interested in a lot of your points, but just a few brief responses:

Have any of those new formalist writers ever called you a language poet? Ron Silliman was once asked who was a language poet, and he jokingly responded "Anybody who has been called one."

Seriously though: I think you're not the only writer to feel uncomfortably between and/or outside various literary approaches.

Still, I feel like your description of language poetry doesn't match at all with what I think it is. I'd love to hear more some time about where you've encountered language poetry: through your own reading, through having it taught by others or commented on by others? All of the above?

Quite seriously: I'd be interested in hearing in more detail your personal story regarding your encounters with language poetry. It would give me and perhaps some others here a way of understanding how you've come to the conclusions that you have. It might even be something that I'd want to put up as its own separate blog post, if you're interested.

Art Durkee said...

Nope, I've never been called a LangPoet LOL but I have been tarred with the brush of being "experimental." The LangPoets I've interacted with, including Silliman (who's posted once or twice on my blog, awhile ago), have all rejected my poetry as non-post-avant; the neo-formalists I've interacted with have rejected it as too non-formalist, and too avant. So, I'm pleased to say I've been thoroughly rejected by the best. LOL

My encounters with LangPo, in sum: I own a few anthologies of the stuff; I've read Silliman's prose on it, such as "The New Sentence;" I've read most of the manifestos written by Silliman and his designated peers, i.e. those he collaborates with and recommends; I've read most of Marjorie Perloff's commentaries on avant-garde poetries; ditto most of Richard Kostelanetz, ditto Jerome Rothenberg; and a bit more; I've read the poetry itself again and again, looking for why it might work, or might be engaging. So far, no luck. LOL

Susan Howe occasionally does something that moves me, makes me feel something. I find Bernstein to be a one-trick pony (joker's wild); I find a great deal of LangPo to be completely repetitive, once I get the "gimmick" in play, in a given body of work.

One of the tactics these folks use to deflect criticism is to say that "you have to read my entire body of work, not just a few poems, to get what we're doing." That does effectively deflect a lot of criticism. But it also reflects their tendency towards ideology as driving force, rather than experience, soma, inspiration, whatever else we want to call it. (Just as it's easy to find ideological parallels between poetic neo-formalism and political neo-conservatism, it's possible to find ideological parallels between LangPo and avowed Marxist-academic literary criticism: and these parallels have been acknowledged.)

(I often read Silliman's blog, and occasionally post a comment there; not often, because the usual suspects are, well, borderline insane. Ron's lists of links are often very useful. The truth is, I rather like Ron as a person, and I agree with him about a lot of life-stuff; its just poetry that I strongly disagree with him about, most importantly about his Us vs. Them taxonomies.)

And I come from being a student of John Cage, having read all of his writings numerous times. What I find fascinating is how little credit he is given for developing many of the tactics of making art that he developed, or invented, that the post-avant poetries use: they acknowledge their debt to MacLow, for example, but ignore Cage; even though Cage did a lot of this sort of writing earlier than anyone else. His engagement with notating his lectures as though they were performance pieces (which they were: as his arthritis worsened, he shifted more to verbal performance, and away from manual performance, for his musical events) dates to the 1940s. His work with indeterminacy, his use of fragmented and broken syntax, his work with sampling texts (such as "Writing Through Finnegan's Wake"), all pre-date the post-avant by decades. (It's hard to take flarf seriously, except as part of the general history of sampling, and 20 years behind Cage's "Writing Through. . . .")


Art Durkee said...


But then, if you look at the history of the arts for the past few centuries, and track the dates of the introductions of similar kinds of innovations or experiments in the various arts, literature often lags decades behind the visual and musical arts. Of course, I'm oversimplifying, but I've been noticing this gap since I was in college when I first became aware of it.

To be honest, I am very much in agreement with some of the theories about how to make poetry that come up in the LangPo manifestos and other expositions about it: it's that the execution, the poetry itself, does absolutely nothing convincing for me. (And why I find many of the theories interesting is preceisely because they echo Cage, among others.) Two problems with this, it seems: 1. the theory is better than the poetry; and/or, 2. the theory dictates the poetry, which is almost always a prescription for lesser art. Doesn't matter what the theory is, whenever theory dictates praxis, the art usually loses its way.

I have yet to see one of the LangPoets genuinely engage McLuhan, or Bucky Fuller, or even Cage, in terms of actively responding to their conceptual influences. If the influence is there, and it almost certainly is, it's but rarely acknowledged if at all. I have a general attitude of being suspicious of people who claim to be doing something entirely new without acknowledging their forebears. So part of my problem with a lot of the post-avant is because to my eye it looks quite derivative, not as original as claimed to be. It's as if they can only be (maintain the stance of) "all avant-garde, all the time" by pretending to be a-historical.

I've been working a long time towards a definitive statement of my own positions on this topic. I've been planning to essay on it, and post it on my own blog. I'm not sure I can ever finish such an essay, though: it's too big. I dunno if any of this helped to know. I'm just riffing at the moment.

mark wallace said...

Thanks, Art.

If you're willing to have me use these comments as their own separate blog post, I'd appreciate it. You could e-mail them along with any changes to me at

Just so you're not blindsided by what I intend, I'd be interested to see what other readers of this blog think about your take on language poetry. It's not a take that I share, although you articulate it well, but I wouldn't be using your words as a chance for my own response, although I'll provide a bit of context just so people know what they're reading. But I'd like to give people a more overt chance to respond to your ideas.

But again, all this is only if you feel like playing the game. Either way is fine with me. I do appreciate your comments here whichever you decide.

Art Durkee said...

I'll see what I can pull together soon.

I'm certainly willing to engage in a civil dialogue about the topic, and hear from many differing viewpoints. (Sadly, civility among those who disagree is often what is most lacking in poetry crit.) Most discussions of the topic are full of straw-man arguments, starting with Silliman's own fundamental straw-man of the SoQ, a taxonomy he defends beyond all logic, and which basically breaks down into the "Them" of his Us vs. Them stance. So, while I'm aware that my position regarding LangPo (and by extension other aspects of Silliman's post-avant, such as Ashbery et al.) is a minority position among those engaged with the avant-garde, I'm also aware that it's a well-researched position that I've thought about for years. It's great to open a dialogue about it, just expect some illogic to reveal itself from certain directions. Past a certain point, don't expect me to respond to illogic, or, specifically, ad hominem tactics.

People can hopefully start with what they DO like about LangPo. (Coolness and hipness are inadequate replies, just to be clear.)

mark wallace said...

I look forward to receiving something from you, Art.

Honestly though, even on this pro-language poetry blog, you're much more likely to get an ad hominem attack in the blog comments if you like language poetry than if you don't. Seriously.