“Why don’t you just say
what you mean?”
Why don’t I?”
—Rae Armantrout, “Money Shot”
The 19th century “discovered explanation,” Gertrude Stein said, and this “description of daily island life” was an “art” modernism sought to redeem, perhaps as a way of returning us, as readers, to writing modeled again on the human body, dating back to historical periods when distances were calculated by recourse to its extensive powers (“arm’s length,” “hairsbreadth”). The modernist drive (anticipatory of language poetry) toward minor literatures, communal possibilities, marginalized voices, and inclusive rather than exclusive stylistic means such as pastiche, dialog, and verbal collage began with the desire to emancipate poetry from its received, institutionalized forms.
Language poetry freed us from the coercive and epiphanic dimensions of the lyric project, but while acquiring important poetic tools (ostranenie, parataxis, the new sentence) to complicate the production and presentation of meaning and sense, it has developed its own set of institutional codes and troubled relationships to affect, authenticity, and “sense-making” in all its forms.
The attempt to freeze the text not in a stabilized lyric subjectivity but in the smoke and mirrors of de-significatory banter or glossolaliac play can be harmless, and usually is—but not when the libidinal cathexis of the poem, or the movement itself, becomes a self-referential closed loop.
Rem Koolhaas’s moniker “kindergarten grotesque” (defined as total commodification and the inescapability of irony and the camp mode) describes a brand of architecture, but kindergarten grotesque seems an apt, if dark, descriptor for much of contemporary poetry, alternative names for which range from “the new childishness” and “post-ironic attachment.” 
If modernism’s obsession with form has morphed into a fetishization of formlessness, I propose a win-win solution for both sides of the artificial divide between “conceptual” and “mainstream” lyric poetries: a return to the time of the poem’s utterance: its breath.
* * * *
Good verse poems don’t just abscond rhythm and meter: they incorporate and scramble them into new forms, forms which are now seeking definition outside of our exhausted taxonomies of poetry—lyric, language, post-language, conceptual, post-conceptual—and their attendant “schools.”
The poem cannot be reduced to its opaque materiality (exterior form) nor semantic transparency (literal communication), because poetic language is not composed of words but contextual signs and sounds: its powers of “play” lies in its irreducibility to either straightjacket.
Poetry, as Jan Mukařovsky said, is language not used in the services of communication, and many of the poem’s properties (tactile, visual, aural) that are anterior to signification are what gives the poem its force and vitality. To permanently derange the poem’s ability to “make” sense (the root of “poesis”), however, is to refuse to allow the poem to signify, which threatens its survival as text, as well as its continued readership beyond an ever-shrinking coterie.
Coleridge sought to define a poetics that would “justify the critical machine,” thus rendering the poet capable of taking up his divine office once again: to represent the world of sight and sound with fidelity. Biographia Literaria (1817) set forth a trajectory for creating Roger Bacon’s “vestigia communia of the senses”: after the rigors of mimetic training, Coleridge’s ideal poet was invested with the power and authority to transform muta poesis into lingua franca, as a way to both situate the poem historically (from Milton to Shakespeare) and metrically: only then could poetry’s heterogeneous forms be aligned with “universal truth” of geometry. The successful result: a “blameless style” capable of being transliterated into another language, without injury to the desideratum of poem’s meaning, in full possession of the beautiful particular (“multeity in unity”) referred to by Aristotle as the “involution” of the universal in the individual. 
The New Critics’ methods of rapprochement are based on those of the structuralists, and earlier yet, the Russian Formalists: Yurii Tynianov and Roman Jakobson’s 1928 essay “Theses on Language” proposed a scientific project of basing literary interpretation off a “system of systems” (poetry’s dream of the unified field?). The structuralists, along with phenomenological critics, tried to solve the problem of poetry’s non-discursive elision from classification by performing close readings that stressed the poem’s materiality and boundedness (as a “tissue of signs”) whereas formalist Critics emphasized the poem’s autonomous existence outside of the mind of the perceiver and the market.
The structuralists practice of textual “deferral” was a form of textual “doubling” (the simulacrum added to and thus “destroyed” the trace of the original) and thus both an act of “deconstruction” and construction, opening language to the interval of a breath. Through repetition, the text would be made material through successive patterning, raw linguistic matter would be babbled into deliberate intention: the conventional form(s) of the signifier.
From the Romantic belief that a poem’s embodied organicism could justify the “critical machine” of structuralist linguistics to the becoming-machine of the poem itself was prompted by William Carlos Williams’ analogy between the poem and a machine, though, to revisit the context of Williams’ declaration it’s clear he was speaking of poetry’s sculptural powers, not its automatism: “There’s nothing sentimental about a machine,” said Williams, “[and] when I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant . . . Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter . . . poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.” 
Modernisms’ anti-metaphysical turn from the question from what a poem “is” to what it “does” (“What does a comma do?” asked Stein) led to Stein’s apt definition of the postmodernist project (“the hope that the painting will move, that it will live outside its frame”). Stein’s materialist approach to the deconstructed poem can also be found in Williams, who resisted signification by reversing the traditional syntax of an English language sentence (subject/object/verb); metonymic substitution of common nouns and subjects for objects; and by hard enjambments and syncopated rhythms, wherein collapsed syntactical units frustrated the semantic meaning of the “line.”
In while working out her project of re-forming the musculature of a poetic line by ridding it of punctuation, subordinate and dependent clauses, and proper nouns, Stein alludes to “musical memory”: how to incorporate the “ghost of meter” was also a concern of the modernists, as was their concern with genre distinctions between poetry and prose. Poetry cannot be defined, according to Stein: but prose can: “Prose is the balance the emotional balance that makes the reality of paragraphs and the unemotional balance that makes the reality of sentences and having realized completely realized that sentences are not emotional while paragraphs are, prose can be the essential balance that is made inside something that combines the sentence and the paragraph.”  The “body” of a sentence (including its meaning) as its constitutive “parts” (each phoneme, grapheme, or semaphore) undergirds the project of modernist writing in all forms.
Conceptual and mainstream lyric poetries both lay claim to a return to the body: the distinction inheres in whether this textual body is that of a ravaged human “corpus,” or a cyborg analogon.
As Kenneth Goldsmith explains, the death of modernist disjunction led to the making of “sense” in the Internet-derived montages of flarf (poet as cyber-bricoleur): an outgrowth of conceptual poetry, in which the poet attempts to make not metaphors but algorithms, and turn poetry into a machine. 
Choosing between the gleeful dismemberment of a purely citational, Internet-derived textual “body” (flarf), or a contemporary version of Homeric mimesis (e.g. Goldsmith’s Day), which transcribes mass media’s ideology rather than poetic tradition, takes questions of agency, intentionality, and framing and turns them into questions of proprietorship (intellectual property, copyright).
Are we to read Stein (and her heirs, the post-language and post-conceptual poets today), as encyclopedic taxonomists who, while refusing forms of linguistic hierarchy and referentiality in their search for a textual experience commensurate with the object itself, still seek to construct their own?
Or as a true materialists in every sense of the word, who intend for their readers to revel in the tactility of language without the Keatisan “irritable reaching after fact or reason” (or, “sense”)?
Hejianian’s description of the open text as a confluence of desire, multiplicity, and rhythm, encourages one to think of these historical lines of inquiry as contiguous, and the search for dynamical and non-prescriptive forms of poetry and poetics common to all poets.
* * * *
Contemporary poetry’s current logjam seems to be one of confusion of terms, rather than actual aesthetic disagreement. Jason Morris describes the New Sincerity (Tao Lin, Nate Pritts, Matt Hart, and Dorothea Lasky) as modality and technique: a drive to sincerity that “also seems intelligently aware it is always already arriving too late. It is a kind of sincerity putting on its hat as it runs out the door: an ‘impotential’ sincerity—a sincerity cognizant of its own ‘teleological ineffectiveness’—a modal sincerity—a sincerity ‘too late’ to have effected [itself].” 
The ultimate irony, as David Foster Wallace warned, is that irony can’t critique social structures, only add another layer, that of ubiquity (stereotype). “Irony” and “sincerity” are also structural terms that subtend Western thought: Plato feared mimetic representation’s ability to blur the line between “inner” truth and “outer” appearance, provoking the “need” to differentiate between the two in order separate the sophists from the truth-tellers, and the laborers from the philosophers.
All poets begin with historical as well as formal données: the hours we spend at the library, bookstore, and at home sifting through the words that both enamor and repel, sorting through what Hejinian calls the “prepoetic” (the incipient text, anterior to composition) or what Gilles Deleuze calls in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation “prepictorial givens”: the stockpile of dull images and clichés that saturate the page or canvas before the work of writing, or painting, can begin. 
The invitation to form is the invitation to see various schools of poetry and their genres and countergenres (e.g. pastoral and satire) not as opposites but as points on a spectrum (Shakespeare’s genius, as we know, was based on his masterful manipulation of the code of genre). We can only do away with the false binary of mimetic/anti-mimetic representation (inseparable from questions of authorial intention) when we begin to want to make, and to experience, art that, while exploiting its own illegibility or readability, also moves toward an acknowledgement of its reader and the reader’s desire for more than just verbal flotsam—the desire for a textural body with curvatures of meaning, sense, and signification.
Engaging with versus “alienating” an audience is a crucial question for conceptual art, given that meaning as an agreement between performer and audience is only progressive if it “means something” for a listener—for it is from interpreting music as meaningful that we discover, through active listening and new performance theories, the ability to respond.
Electronic poetry effects disembodiment through textual fragmentation, which seeks to “liberate” the reader’s options for producing meaning and perspective. One must ask, however, in light of the enthusiastic rhetoric surrounding participatory art: are these forms of “agency” designed to empower the listener, or merely offer the simulated illusion thereof? If choosing among pre-established rule-sets generated by word machines becomes the only participatory liberation offered to readers of electronic literature, the aesthetics of boredom and disinterest circulating today (what Sianne Ngai calls “stumplimity”) will become de rigueur: how else to affectively engage with or critique the “intention” of a machine?
Thinking of the poem as not a machine but an organic textual body builds rather than burns the bridge from Romantic to post-Romantic sensibilities, and building bridges with poetic history keeps poetic revolutions from remaining purely those of nomenclature. Instead, poetry becomes what Lisa Siriganian calls (in an essay on the language poet Juliana Spahr from Modernism’s Other Work) a defense of “meaning’s incorporation”: “The art object’s meaning connects to the reader’s breath and thus, her body . . . [this] morphs into critiques of universality that make us breathe differently.”  “Air” also implies critical distance: the very foundation of political critique, for Adorno, and, good theater, for Brecht.
Siraganian emphasizes oxygen and carbon dioxide as principles of universal connection, as did Olson, whose theory of projective verse remains the 20th century’s most significant flirtation with the idea that the third unit of “sense” in a poem, in addition to lexical units and sounds, was breath. 
The practice of uniting breath to speech or writing is an ancient art: when Ignatius counseled praying in rhythm by linking a word of the Pater Noster to each breath, he was recalling techniques of Buddhist practice as well as the Eastern Church (e.g. the respiration prayers of John Chimaque).
Breath, following the tempo of the body’s rhythms, takes us back to the poem’s core unit of sense and meaning-making: the line. Proceeding through the syntactic, metrical, and temporal gates that keep poetry’s “otherworldliness” (the indisputable fact of its materiality) intact, we arrive at what Barthes calls the “pulsional incident” itself: “the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal sterephony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue.” 
Poetry is issued from textual and corporeal bodies: how and in what way those “bodies” are composed (and decomposed) is a matter of aesthetic choice, as is the decision to let a poem have a life outside of its compositional (and increasingly computational) field, or let the reader “breathe.”
Michael Davidson refers to writing-in-process as the “Palimptext,” wherein the material features of the page dovetail with that of the materiality of the sign. Oppen’s texts (among other palimptextual manuscripts such as Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Shakespeare’s folios, Blake’s illustrated books, Dickinson’s fascicles, Pound’s Cantos, and Susan Howe’s Pierce-Arrow) contain spelling mistakes, holograph emendations, and variable lineation; in this style of composition, new stanzas are often “glued” to whole pages of poems so that the revision formed a thick, textual impasto.
While these writing practices are also Western (character-based writing such as Japanese doesn’t inscribe the accrual of textual marks but the instantaneity of the signified in a single stroke), any writing practice which provides a sustained recognition of difference within the linguistic sign is also a return to the pleasures of the a- and trans-signifying text. Embodied writing (and reading) rides the wave of the breath, ushering us into not a theory, but the actual body, of the textual sublime.
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, The Believer, and the Boston Review, among others, and she is a regular reviewer for The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, and Michigan Quarterly Review’s blog.
Image by Luca Benites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65843607
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