Some Thoughts on Reading Poetry… Especially Mine

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Poetry is what’s there on the page. Traditional understanding can be secondary without diminishing poetry.

Poetry can make sense by appearing to make sense, appearing as if it should make sense, tantalizing us to attempt to transcend a sensation of confused frustration and “get it.” It beckons in the same unrewarding manner as that experienced by the mythical Tantalus, punished as he attempted to reach for fruit just out of reach or lean to drink the water he was standing in that always receded as he tried. 

“Why is there a Problem?” by Robert Beckhardt

This tantalizing temptation should be resisted when reading my poetry. That is the way most any letter symbols formed into the words in a language are understood, by using its natural letters or glyphs to make “sense” of it, by making meaning efficiently, or at least sufficiently accessible.

Because we are so accustomed to find the meaning or sense of written words coming to us with immediate urgency, it seems that upon a single read, we must simply understand it because life itself is urgent and immediate. For that reason, finding meaning in poetry for the purpose of communicating as in everyday life, must occur at “the speed of life.” Many people come to believe that just as the speed of light limits how fast anything in the universe can travel, the speed of life must limit the time it takes to get what lies beyond their initial frustration with what they read.

Readers are too quick to abandon the task as inefficiently incomprehensible and don’t invest enough time and effort to deeply and repetitively immerse themselves in the search for something that resonates with them. At the same time, the difficulty is a constant distraction making conventional sense ever more futile. One always has the feeling of reaching for the almost as if there must be something pithy, satisfying, secure, and well defined beyond the words as you find them.

Often in poetry, the words only point the way.

In search of what isn’t there, one might miss the essence of poetry, especially like mine, wherein the emotional and spare cognitive resonances are embedded in what points the reader to randomly decide on what or how it means or feels.

It’s so often felt that what you find on the page needs translation into some easy “language of everyday rhetoric,” the simplicities of conversational language, to be considered worthy. We don’t do that with abstract visual art that we enjoy, despite the fact that many critics have made an industry of promulgating the notion that even abstract art must be translated into sensible rhetoric. They often believe they are the necessary mediators trusted to supply meaning in “understandable language,” which often focuses critical thought on the artist’s novel technique (think Pollack and action painting). Similarly, in music without lyrics or opera in a language you do not understand, the work is rarely subjected to fixed ideas of meaning except by critics whose job it is to skillfully use words to give it their interpretation, an easy way for readers to be lazy about immersion to derive what relates explicitly to them, which, like my poetry, takes its cue from the diffuseness of emotional experience, experience which only the individual who produced the work and those who experience the work in some depth can express… and they are likely to be quite different experiences.

My poetry is akin to abstract visual art and to music. Because it is mostly a pastiche of words and phrases, fragments literally cut from elsewhere which, when put in my context, alters their “sense,” my poetry creates what some might call “non-sense” (hyphenated or not). One falls into the conventional trap of “meaning” quite easily. I would recommend resisting this from the start. Experience it for the flow of emotions, echoes, and reverberations, the flow of words, all from elsewhere that join in stream as I go along letting the poem write itself. I find “a context that fits” in an aesthetically pleasing way to me as I am immersed in the construct of writing. I would hope the work (and it’s a lot of work) has enough attraction to compel the reader to make an effort to invest in adequate immersion. 

This is the mind’s magic illusion.

In the end, the irony is that “conscious experience” itself is actually a flow of often disconnected fragments, exterior sensations, internal visceral/musculoskeletal impressions, all mixed alchemically with interior remnants of conscious thought and unconscious inputs to produce emotionally sympathetic resonance, something we might call a “harmonic stream of conscious.”

Finally, It needs noting that emotion is far more ancient in our evolution and is rooted as much in the body as the brain. We prize and often overvalue the brain’s vivid cognition without realizing it exists within, and depends upon a body-brain partnership rooted in emotion and feeling (that’s a neurobiological distinction for another rant). For that reason, the cognitive, which feels more precise and comfortable, often deafens us to language as the vehicle of limbic music. 

The poetry I write and enjoy reading is as much about writing poetry as it is as poetry itself, poetry free of formality and crowded with language that I hope induces an emotional response. I start by not knowing where I’m going, and follow what pleases my inner ear. Somewhere I read that after everything has already been done, pastiche is all that’s left for fresh originality to draw upon. This is certainly going out on thin and ever thinner ice. 

Some intriguing quotes:

“It’s not what you say it’s the way you say it.” – Olivia Laing

“Make it new.” – Ezra Pound

“Please do not understand me too quickly.” – André Gide

“One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” – T.S. Eliot

“And I must borrow every changing shape to find expression.” – T.S. Eliot

“A poem need not have meaning and like most things in nature often does not have. The poem must resist the intelligence/almost successfully.” – Wallace Stevens

“Chance would be the manifestation of the exterior necessity which battles its way through man’s unconscious.” – André Breton

“The words in a book remain the same, but our experience of these words does not.“ – unknown

“I approach books in the manner of a chef, using parts.“ – unknown

 “We all borrow. It’s difficult not to. What makes it art? Context and intention.” – Robert Beckhardt

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