Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ron Silliman has a very interesting blog about Clark Coolidge that's still causing a bit of a stir. He says that with a poet who seems to use words that have no obvious referents, or have a strong visual or musical element that's seemingly abstract (that is, not refering to the world outside itself) that you should start by taking it for what it is.

It's a very helpful blog, because he makes the connection with other art forms such as abstract art (no-one - unless they're very stupid - looks at a Pollock and says "yes, but what's it about" anymore.) But of course, words aren't like sounds in music or colour in painting, they always do have a "meaning" out there if you put them into a combination of two or more. Even if you break them up into sylables. And I don't think that Silliman is saying that either. He's saying that you start with what's in front of you, not what you think it ought to be. If it looks like a bunch of words that don't have obvious links or referents, then that is how you start to read it. Assume that the writer knew what he or she was doing, or at least had a reasonable idea that they knew what they were doing.

That's really difficult to do if, like me, your instinct, trained into you by years of education and reading, is to try and find out what a poem "means" (which basically involves paraphrase: putting it in other words, as if the words themselves weren't adequate.) What I take him to be saying, though, is that it is the start not the end of the reading of that kind pf poem. Don't look for a narrative where a narrative doesn't exist ("Oh look, those squiggles look like a face"-like) and just look. "Don't think, look," as I believe Wittgenstein once said (strictly impossible; I don't think they can be seperated entirely.)

It may be that by giving it a chance, you'll come back to it later and see something you didn't see. Maybe not a narrative, but a context for a narrative. Or maybe you'll just get bored and not find the words in the least bit interesting so you'll go away and read something else. That's fine too. I think people feel guilty if they don't like a poet everyone tells them is great. Everyone may even be right about the greatness (they undoubtedly are about Olson, for instance, and I don't like Olson): but that doesn't mean I or you have to like it. There are no "have-to's" in poetry.

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