Kenneth Goldsmith, the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural Poet Laureate, has been getting some press lately. With his pseudo-Dadaist philosophy of Everything’s a poem! Goldsmith has been regurgitating the perennial complaint that poetry is either dead or dying, infiltrating venues as public as The Colbert Report with his gospel of appropriation and “uncreative writing.” Clad in hot-pink pinstriped suits and bushy faux-fur coats, Goldsmith prescribes his miracle-cure to the masses (Poetry must go digital!), arguing that YouTube videos, image macros, and “hardcore programming” should now be classified as poetry. This radical redefinition, Goldsmith argues, is the only way to save the antiquated art from the obscurity it probably deserves.
The following post, which I’ve divided into two parts (I’ll run the second half tomorrow), entertains another radical notion of what a poem and poetry can be, Valery’s concept of Pure Poetry, as it might pertain to the nonsense verse of Charles Bernstein: Goldsmith’s compatriot in the dim lands of Conceptual Poetry. Please enjoy.
In his 1933 omnibus “A Poet’s Notebook,” Paul Valery argues that a poem’s value is determined by “its content of pure poetry.” Like Poe before him, Valery believes that all texts contain fragments of pure poetry, “La Poésie pure,” which he vaguely characterizes as “a noble and living substance.” These nuggets of concentrated or distilled or absolute poetry exemplify what all writing aspires to be because pure poetry elicits the most powerful emotive response within the reader.
So what is pure poetry? Does it exist in practice or is it merely theoretical—an ideal text, a kind of pre-existent model that occurs only in the poet’s mind as a prototype to be groped toward or imitated? And, if it does exist, are there concrete examples of pure poems in our time, or is it a concept unique to the “l’art pour l’art” of French Symbolism? And can these examples be pure poems in their entirety, or does pure poetry, as Poe and Valery insisted, only occur as fragments?
Nonsense verse offers some fertile ground to explore. According to the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, nonsense verse is “not no-sense,” but rather a form that uses language in a non-referential way, making a kind of “shard-sense” or “new-sense.” Nonsense verse liberates language from conventional lexical meaning by trading sense for ur-sense, suggesting meaning by the sound of invented words. Because nonsense verse so completely abandons what Valery refers to as “the practical or pragmatic part of language,” the place where pure poetry does not live, nonsense verse seems the closest we have to music. And since music, for both Poe and Valery, is the art form that most often attains sublimity or “the creation of supernal Beauty” (Poe), nonsense verse, the hey nonny-nonny of poetic modes, seems a logical one to examine for evidence of the purely poetic.
Charles Bernstein’s “Johnny Cake Hollow” is a representative contemporary example. Written without the signs and signifiers of actual language, the poem enacts a kind of radical minimalism that, if it is not a version of the pure poetry hypothesized by Poe and Valery, is at least an attempt at pure form:
JOHNNY CAKE HOLLOW
Xo quwollen swacked unt myrry flooped
Sardone to fligrunt's swirm, ort
Jirmy plaight org garvey swait ib
Giben durrs urk klurpf. Sheb
Boughtie bloor de dazzy dule dun
Fruppi's ghigo's gly, jud
Chyllrophane jed jimmsy's cack—
Exenst aerodole fump glire. Eb
Horray bloot, ig orry sluit neb
Nist neb ot neb gwon. Shleb
Atsum imba outsey burft allappie
Merp av ords. Een ainsey swish
Ien ansley sploop ughalls dep dulster
Flooge, ig ahrs unt nimbet twool
Begroob, ig ooburs quwate ag blurg.
Willfully unreadable, the poem mocks the ballad stanza or the hymnal stanza or the short or common stanzas (take your pick)—all having the same basic form: quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter rhyming abcb. Though mostly unrhymed and composed of one stychic fifteen-line stanza, Bernstein’s poem both imitates this form and playfully subverts it: “Xo QUWOllen SWACKED unt MYrry FLOOPED / SarDONE to FLIgrunt’s SWIRM.” As the poem progresses, however, Bernstein gradually buries the meter by withholding in the previous line the first, unstressed syllable of the initial iambic foot of each subsequent line (“ort / Jirmy plaight org garvey swait ib / Giben durrs urk klurpf. Sheb”). In other words, rather than breaking the line after “swab” and “klurpf,” which would’ve preserved the meter of the ballad stanza, he withholds one syllable (“ib” and “Sheb”) from the subsequent lines. In fact, he accomplishes this effect to such an extent that he eventually disguises the meter completely, bringing to the poem an overarching sense of arbitrariness.
In this way, Bernstein’s form is almost pure; it attempts to present the ballad stanza free from those functional characteristics typically associated with language: communication, message, sense. “Pure” in this case also means “without variation.” Think of that moment in the final scene of Lear when the king enters carrying the body of Cordelia, and utters, before he dies, what must be the purest example of trochaic pentameter in the English language: “Never, never, never, never, never.” Similarly, a “pure” version of the ballad stanza might look like this:
Dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DAH
dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DOH.
Dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DIFF
dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DOH.
But pure form is an abstraction, an ideal. Without dramatic context, Shakespeare’s line would mean nothing—literally; it could be replaced by any other trochaic word and would have an identical, or nearly identical, effect, e.g. “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.” Bernstein’s poem, as an almost pure example, has variations, sonic oddities, inconsistencies, and even enjambments, all of which make it interesting as verse. But in several recordings of Bernstein reading the poem (all readily available online as MP3 files or videos), he ignores these variations and emphasizes the meter his poem parodies by pausing alternately at the fourth and third iambs of every other line respectively, ignoring all efforts he has made on the page to suppress the form. Why does he do this? The answer is simple: because without the ballad stanza the poem as nonsense verse would degenerate into not-sense, and, more importantly, would not be even remotely funny.
Before I plunge deeper into the dark (if shallow) depths of Bernstein’s poem, I’d like to acknowledge a larger issue at work here. Bernstein’s poem seems the natural or even logical (yes, logical) bi-product of an age that has considered, probably since the 19th century and certainly since Modernism, lyric to be the height of poetry, discounting the other two major poetic genres: dramatic and narrative/epic. As a perversion of the purely lyric, “Johnny Cake Hollow” reads like a symptom—an extreme case—of the dreaded Subjectivity Disease: a condition that develops within the collective corpus of poetry when its practitioners cease to look backwards to the work of the past (before, say, the reactionary isms following WWI) and outward into the world in which we actually live, e.g. suburban Cincinnati; rural West Virginia; desecrated downtown Detroit; wherever.
As John Stuart Mill observed in 1833, lyric “has always seemed to us like the lament of a prisoner in a solitary cell, ourselves listening, unseen in the next.” As a poem so subjective that it can only be understood by its author, and probably not even by him, “Johnny Cake Hollow” sounds to the adjacent listener like an expression of catatonia. If we press a little harder on Mill's metaphor, the “prisoner” who sings--or grunts--Bernstein’s poem would be a full-time resident of a psychiatric facility, and the poem itself a transcript of a psychotic break.
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll focus more specifically on the symptoms of this condition within Bernstein’s poem, and will continue my search for the purely poetic. Until soon.